Parent Power

27 08 2011

“Long, long ago when the world was young…”  Thus began my father’s bedtime stories, told in musty, hot tent trailers while we were camping.  His stories always revolved around a character he made up called Papa Scotia.  Papa Scotia was quite a character, too!  He had a passel of kids and always took them on wild adventures, doing everything exactly backward.  The fact that Daddy came up with these stories was amazing, as he was a chemist with a mind colored in black and white and read only (gasp) non-fiction.  Mama’s camping stories were more fanciful, about fire fairies and such.  I remember one story about a spoiled fairy who cried so much she turned into stone, with a trickle of fairy tears running down her that fed into a magical mountain stream.  Looking back, I can see that their inspiration came from us, a fact that sailed blissfully over my head at the time.

My parents only told my sister and me made-up stories when we were camping, since without any lights it was impossible to read.  When we were home, we always ended the day with a story, usually one from a set of books called The Junior Classics.  I have vivid memories of sitting on the sofa, Lucy on one side and I on the other, with my mother reading to us.  We read fairy tales, folk tales, myths and legends, stories about animals, heroes, and giants.  I remember looking at the page in front of her and seeing only a mixed up bunch of letters.  What magic there was in reading!

Almost six years old and deep into a book

When I started correcting my mother’s reading, she stopped reading to me as much.  Go figure.  Instead, she got us library cards, and we went to the library at least once a week.  We were given a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine and read it cover to cover several times each month.  We thought we had struck gold when my mother gave us a “Book of the Month” subscription for our birthdays.  What fun to get a hardback book in the mail that we could keep!  Those books too were read, reread, and then read again.  And yes, packrat that I am, I still have a few.  For my grandchildren.  Many many years from now. (By that time, I’ve have to explain to them what these things called “pages” are.)

The point is, from a young age, my parents modeled literacy to us.  They provided opportunities for reading.  They made relevant, interesting literature available to us.  Rarely, they gave us pointers on reading: “Don’t worry about pronouncing names right, just say it and move on.” And they gave us time.  Our days weren’t filled with scheduled activities.  We were Junior Girl Scouts and sang in the church choir.  For a couple of years my sister took piano lessons, and I played church-league basketball one year.  But for the most part we had time: time to play outside, time to explore, time to get bored and lots of time to lose ourselves in books.  More than one long rainy afternoon was spent inside my closet, into which I had pulled blankets, pillows, and a lamp, reading and reading and reading.

My parents were the best teachers I could have had, hands down.  I try to be a good teacher to my students, but I know I will never teach with the power of a parent who reads.

A Good Read

25 07 2011

             Yesterday, my husband and I trimmed branches off the trees in our front yard.  [Yes, Lord, I know it was Your day, but Brian had spent Friday working for Habitat and Saturday working on the ramp ministry, so I hope You don’t mind.]  The branches were getting so thick we couldn’t see the house from the street.  We made quite a show of it: two ladders, two chainsaws, him cutting, me dragging.  It was hot.  The branches reached out and scratched me at every opportunity. (Me: Tree, look at this like a haircut.  Tree: Yeah, how would you like your limbs cut off?)  When we finally decided to call it a day at 6:00, I was whupped.

Yet the whole time I was out there, I wasn’t really out there.  I was in an operating room with Marion Stone, trying to adjust to life in America after having narrowly escaped being thrown in a dank prison in Addis Abba, Ethiopia.  I had started this book several weeks ago when in Alaska on vacation, but it had taken me a while to really get into it.  Now I was in so deep, I couldn’t get out.  I felt like an enormous black hole was drawing me in.  At the center of the black hole was Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese.

Good books are like that.  They grab you, shake your thinking around, and wrap their tendrils around you until they have woven a way into your being.  They enrich your life.  They teach you without realizing it.  Did you know that Marion Sims is considered the father of American gynecology?  For two years I lived at USC right beside a dorm named in his honor.  Until I read Cutting for Stone, I didn’t know who he was.

Yet the real value of good books goes far beyond mere facts.  Ideas open your mind, broadening your life.  From this book alone, I’ve learned about the life, culture, and history of Ethiopia, I’ve learned about parenting techniques and what it means to be a parent, and I’ve learned about having a passion for your life’s work and balancing that passion for work with relationships developed with family and friends.  I’ve learned that human emotions are universal, that the dirty poor living in the worst conditions in Ethiopia grieve just as deeply over the loss of a loved one as we do with our advanced degrees and homes stuffed with the latest latest.  Maybe even more, since relationships are all they have.

From reading good books, I’ve learned how to write.  I’ve had some good writing instructors along the way, but at best they’ve provided me with a few tips and a lot of motivation.  By reading good books, I’ve learned techniques: sentence formation and fluency, structure, organization, and voice.  I struggled with Verghese’s style of writing at first.  Too many tangents, I thought.  Just cut to the chase.  Yet midway through the book the pieces started tying together.  Genius!

Notice how I keep saying “good books?”  Maybe I should throw some synonyms in there: quality literature, engaging prose…  But one point I want to make is that not only is reading important, but it is just as important to read the good stuff.  We are told that to raise our children to be readers, we should allow them to read whatever they want, as long as they are reading.  Cereal boxes and comic books count as much as the classics.  I do think that comic books have a place, as do those books I see boys buying at school book fairs that give them tips and codes for advancing to the next level of their favorite video game.  But let’s read them Jack London’s Call of the Wild while they eat breakfast or before bedtime.  Steer them toward the books with lasting messages, not just the latest in the vampire series.

Reading has taught me to write and also to think.  And now I think it’s time to get back to my book.  My Kindle tells me I’m 79% through.  I hate that.  I want to stay in this book forever.  It’s a good read!