“She has to learn her ABCs and numbers before she gets to kindergarten or she will be behind”, my Aunt Theresa firmly told my mother.
I was a two-year-old called Ducky with tiny buck teeth and a pacifier that I would not give up until I was five. I quickly replaced with my thumb. My mother determined to teach me the alphabet, so she sat with me for endless hours reading letters off of alphabet blocks, little wooden cubes, rough and painted in pretty colors. She taught me the alphabet song and we sang it together all the time, at the Laundromat, while she cooked dinner, and while she fed my baby brother. She taught me my numbers, colors, shapes as well; but it was the letters that I was fascinated with.
Later, when I had mastered the alphabet, she began to teach me words. They were just signs on the street like Exit and Stop. They were on the pretty glass bottles the milkman left on our stoop in Brooklyn. I learned words like milk, cream, and butter. They were in books, pretty pictures and all of my alphabet block letters squished together to make stories. I loved stories; by the time I turned three, I could read them on my own. My first clear memory, I am three and Mommy and I were in the library; I thought it was so funny because she sat on the little baby chair. I asked her why she did not sit in the grownup chairs then she explained to me, “I need to sit here so you can read to me, I will be too tall if I sit on a grown-up chair. Besides, the grownup chairs are where you have to be super quiet and that isn’t any fun.” I agreed.
I reached up and I knew just what book I wanted. It was the orange one on the third shelf. It was shiny and on the cover, it had a funny looking thing with a big hat looking at a plate of eggs and ham. Green Eggs and Ham was a funny book and I liked to read it over and over I didn’t know what ham was, but Mommy said I wasn’t allowed to eat ham anyway. I wouldn’t like to eat green eggs either but Sam I Am made the funny guy eat them at the end every time I read it. Sometimes I wanted him to say no, but in the end, it was always the same. I read it to Mommy and it made her so happy. When I was in second grade I had read so many books. I read all the Dr. Seuss books because my cousin John had a set. My favorite books were Little House on the Prairie about Laura Ingalls and the Sweet Pickles books about all these animal people in Pickletown. I loved to read all the time and Mommy ordered us Weekly Reader books which I read over and over.
I loved my teacher in second grade, her name was Mrs. Futterman. She wanted us to read books all the time. She assigned us all kinds of reports on them, how-to’s, book reviews, and regular old reports. Mr. Tinny, the Vice Principal used to come to our class and listen to us read on book report day, which was on Fridays. That was my favorite day. He liked mine so much he asked if he could have it and hung it in his office. Mommy tells me it was amazing, but I wanted to keep them and look at the pictures I drew.
When Citywide reading test results came back, I scored the highest score in the whole school. I had a ninth-grade reading level they told me, but I didn’t know what that was because my school only had a sixth grade and under. I got to go to the Honor Roll ceremony at nighttime and wear assembly, do tricks with my baton in front of everyone and even hold a real lit candle. Mommy came and she put my hair into pretty ponytails with big red ribbon bows.
The first writing experience I truly enjoyed was in fourth grade. Butterflies swarmed in my nine-year-old belly. The hard wooden school desk chair beneath me felt cumbersome. I smoothed down the page in my black marble composition notebook, my words splattered across it in little girl hand. The pungent smell of cafeteria food assaulted the air. I prayed that the teacher didn’t call on me.
Mrs. Reese looked over to me, her eyes grazing just above her heavy-rimmed glasses; her curly brunette wig was slightly askew, “Are you ready Jemile?”
Every week, we took our spelling words and on Thursday we are told to take them and make a story with them. My stories were a series about a bear family. In my stories my bear family did things my family would never do; they went camping and on vacations, they play games together and went to the beach. They are also nice to each other and when the kids did something wrong the parents scolded instead of hitting. They are how I wished my family really was.
My classmates fidgeted in their seats, the monotony of the school day already falling upon their spirits. A small sound emerged from the paper crinkling within my tiny hands. My shoes made a small squeaking sound as I rubbed them nervously in small circles on the white linoleum tiled floor. I removed the strands of hair from my mouth that always seems to bother everyone, kids always asking me, “Why do you chew your hair? That’s so weird, you’re a freak.” But at that moment they wanted me to read. They gazed towards me anticipating what will happen next to brother and sister Bear. The previous week Papa Bear announced that they were going to get a pet and it would be a surprise. Some of the kids asked me all week, “What kind of pet is it, a dog, a cat, or a stupid boring goldfish?” I loved writing; I hated speaking in front of the class. Eyes stared at me, impatient and curious. I read.
Note: This piece was written for an English Autobiography Writing course at Hunter College in 2013. The assignment was to write about our first memories of reading and writing.