“What was the first book you ever read?” This, I have found, is a frequently asked question in interviews with famous, well-known, and even respected authors. I always find the answers a bit comical, as in the most pretentious fashion, these authors, even ones I respect and admire myself, choose esteemed classics that only the snottiest of children would take great pleasure in reading. “Oh, I loved Mr. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I read it every night when I was a child,” a pretty snobbish author who will go unnamed once said. Not that I should be the one complaining, since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Wind in the Willows were my favorite childhood books. Though, I loved those works mostly for the Disney adaptations, as in truth, I did not to properly read till I was fourteen.
I know this is nothing special, or even that uncommon. There are a number of social and educational disabilities that enable men and women to read and that I should probably be grateful, since I did eventfully learn to read, unlike others. However, I have learnt over time that even being the lesser of struggler, still struggles. So then, where to begin. Probably at the beginning, at least for clarification.
When I was five, I was diagnosed with epilepsy, and though I can proudly say it has bettered and I have not suffered a seizure in nearly six years, I will not lie that the first years were not hard. Often my parents were called to the school for at best a case of dizzy vision or at worst, the dreaded seizure. Although, nothing compared to the franticness my mother shown when I had a concussion, for a moment I thought she looked like she just killed Bellatrix Lestrange. However, with my condition brought a heavy baggage of an added autism, and yes, my autism was caused by epilepsy, and not vaccines. In turn, my epilepsy caused autism, and in turn, that caused my learning disability, and in turn, made reading feel more stressful and less like flying through a rainbow with LaVar Burton.
Every time I opened a book, turned a page, or was even met with a mere sentence or jumble of words mixed together of any kind; it was like deciphering some ancient code of a long dead language. Long, extended words and letters never seemed to click in my mind and any attempt to read them, whether out loud or in my head came out in a stutter of nonsense.
In my early days of school, it was, as my mother would say whenever my father asked a concerning medical question, no big deal, since I was on the same level of development of my pairs. The problems emerged when my pairs rose in their development, and my feet stubbornly stay put. The pain of the struggle came as my classmates and friends learnt more, grew, while I was stuck with a single word. I felt like I was trapped in a locked room, watching the world shift and change around me. However, my punch to the gut moment, my true realization of pain, came whenever my class had our sharing reading moments. Students would get up and read from their favorite books. When it was my turn, I could barely get pass the first. There I was, a little autistic boy, butchering the words of Eric Carle and Tomie Depoala, until the teacher, quite mercifully, put me out of my misery and told me I could sit down.
Obviously, this did not go unnoticed. My parents took note and immediately signed me up for various reading learning centers and tutors. There were only two in my recollection that hold any memory at all. The first was a center in town that seemed to be part of some big chain, which may have been the reason I found it ineffective. The only reason this holds any memory is there was a bean bag I sat on there and they let me have a prize after every session. The next holds a memory for all the wrong reasons. I was sent to study with a woman named Mrs. Louzer, a hardened and strict women who practiced tuff love minus the love. “Read it,” Mrs. Louzer would repeat endlessly and have zero sympathy, and if you did not meet her demands, you would be met with a lecture or a grim prediction on your future. She was not abusive, just unsympathetic, overly strict, and too domineering and controlling. Everyone has that one teacher, my sister had several and referred to them as the Umbridge or Anti-McGonagall, a teacher who is simply put the least favorite. Suffice to say, Mrs. Louzer’s tutelage did not lead to anything productive.
Options were running out, and although I did not fully grasp the weight and burden of my limited development in my still child innocence, my parents did. After long a painful discussions, it was decided I would attend, as my mother put it, a special school for special children. To put it bluntly, it was a school for children with learning and physical disabilities. This did not seem like some huge change or a world-shattering devastation. At the time they told me, I did not think much of it. However, there was one thing I overheard from these talks between my folks and the school that cut less than a knife, but more than a paper cut.
“But will he ever learn how to read?” my father asked them on the phone one evening.
The tone of my father’s voice was sad, pitiful, and in a sorrow that was removed from his usual cheerful and talkative feel that my father carried with him in even the most mundane or casual of conversations. However, the pity and sadness in his voice was not directed at himself, but rather reserved for his poor autistic child, me. Yet, like an infection, my father’s sadness spread to me and a dark hopelessness overtook. Not as severe as depression, but a bleak idea of what I was and how hopeless I am.
Nevertheless, with melancholy I left the elementary school, bid the handful of friends I had goodbye and by summer’s end, was ready for this new life. The school, Cotting, had a rich history and housed the disabled, the fragile, and the broken; I was right at home. For the entirety of my stay, my reading instructor was a kindly woman, short, yet with a cheerful welcoming expression, something you would find in an elderly aunt or grandmother. Her name was Mrs. Burg.
Despite her warm and caring nature, in my early years I was less than kind and caring to her. The first few sessions between me and Mrs. Burg was nothing I would ever be proud of. I would get aggravated, snap at her, even yell. I would accuse of being like Mrs. Louzer, the hostility and negativity of that woman having permanently cast a shadow of judgment on all tutors. However, something amazing happened. Despite my hostility, Mrs. Burg would continue to smile whenever I came into her office for a new session and continue to push me to read the given words. Then, a miracle that to me was comparable to water being turned to wine; I began to understand and read out the words out loud.
It was later, a few years even, that Mrs. Burg introduced the idea of reading a young adult book to help practice. Her choice was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, a short novel featuring a young boy thrown into the wilderness with only a hatchet to survive. The book itself was an interesting read, though when I think back on it, my fondest memories towards the book are always directed towards the time spent with Mrs. Burg. As time went on, I began to see this woman as something between a grandmother and an old aunt. I still email or call her occasional.
Soon, a thought blossomed. What if, I read on my own accord. What if I chose a book and tried to read it on my own? The book I chose was a simple choice, a Harry Potter book, the first one to be exact, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or Philosopher’s Stone if you live in Britain. Suddenly, it did not feel as I was deciphering some code, but rather enjoying Harry, Ron, and Hermione going on some merry adventure.
If I was to be asked what the first book I ever read was, I will give an honest answer. I would say the first book I ever read was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, though I probably would not be able to remember anything about the plot. If the interviewee would press me further on the issue, I would question if I should reveal how I struggled to read even the simplest of words and I was not able to properly read until well into my teens. Maybe if I ever get a chance, I will.
Daniel Ralph a graduate of North Shore Community College currently taking courses at UMass Amherst.