“Once in a while
You open up just like a child
See things fresh and new
I wish this for you
I wish this for you”

— Victoria Williams

Mara read for the first time today. It happened in the car. It happened in the underground parking lot of Whole Foods. We had driven in there and parked, but Angela hadn’t yet finished making the grocery list, so we all sat in the car for a few minutes while she worked out what meals she’d fix this week and what she’d need. For a few minutes Mara and I played; I lowered the back of the driver seat and pretended to be sleeping and snoring.

I noticed a sign on a nearby wall. lit by that dim and depressing garage lighting, whose first word was “NOTICE” writ in large white letters against a black background. I suggested to Mara that we work out what it said. I asked her what the first letter was, and what sound it made, and then the second, and then the third, each time adding the new sound to the word.

“‘N’ and ‘O’ makes ‘No…'”

“‘No’ and ‘T’ makes ‘Not…'”

She knew N and O but had forgotten T momentarily, and she didn’t remember I or C. But when we were all done — adding a Silent E at the end “just to hold it all together” — I pronounced the entire word slowly. Mara recognized it and chirped “Notice!”

Angela then wrote C A T on the back of her shopping list and said, “Here Mara, try this one.”

I looked at it and said, “Oh, I’ll bet she can do that one without any help.” I said this by way of supplying positive chatter, though I secretly thought she might need to be walked through the sounds and I was surpised by what happened next.

Mara regarded the letters for a moment in silence. She didn’t open her mouth. She looked at them as though she expected them to say something to her, which apparently is what happened, because after a long moment she suddenly said “cat”.

Angela reports that a tingle went down her spine when this happened. I myself sat back upright in my seat. The moment of what had just happened hit us both and we looked at each other with boggling eyes. Then we expressed perhaps an overabundance of joy and amazement through high-fives and a lot of whooping, beginning that process (one we usually outsource to the state) of replacing Mara’s innate and intrinsic drive to learn with an extrinsic approval-based motivation to succeed. But we couldn’t help ourselves. Mara read a word!

Okay, but children have been known to memorize the shape of words they see a lot, and we do own The Cat in the Hat and many other books in which cats figure prominently. I once tried to teach a man named Edward to read. He was about sixty and had suffered from some developmental disabilities early in life. I was about twenty-seven and I was volunteering in a literacy program, the only time I have volunteered unselfishly in any organized enterprise. Edward had already had several tutors and had not learned how to read. He was very familiar with the materials and knew the stories by heart, which made it difficult for me to see at first that when he said “cat” he was recognizing the whole word, not a word made up of letters. (This is in fact what the rest of us readers do after we’ve been reading awhile, but the difference is we have gone through a process first of recognizing the word’s constituent parts, and we know what to do if someone takes those parts and rearranges them. Edward could not do that.) So just to be sure what was happening was really happening, Angela wrote B A T and again Mara looked at it for a minute, this time sounding the B the way we’ve taught her. “B – B – B” she said, and then,”bat”.


Lesson One in the underground parking school

We squealed with excitement. Mara did too, and she asked if we could do another. And another. We all started getting high on it. Mara read, with increasing difficulty, TOP, SAT and BAG, before Angela and I got some oxygen in our brains and realized that we were already pushing our daughter unnecessarily. If we pushed further, she would experience failure and disappointment, and there was no need to rush toward that. Her spontaneous achievement was a beautiful beginning, completely sufficient and perfect in the moment. We are so proud of her, but we want her to continue to own and drive her own learning process. We believe kids naturally do this until they are presented with such idiocies as homework assignments that take longer to do than any three class periods combined. 

Yesterday, perhaps not coincidentally, we visited a cooperative school in the University District, meeting the teachers in an open house there. We were really impressed with their whole philosophy, especially given the shape of public school policy today, but we both also had the thought, “why shouldn’t we do this ourselves?” What these teachers are really doing is “listening” (they say this word often and each time they use it they reflexively put their hands up to their ears) and letting the interests of the children drive the subject matter. In their own words, they are mostly socializing the children in an environment where the children continue to do what they have been doing all their lives: soak up knowledge about the world around them. Angela and I both feel this is the right approach, but we also don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to share more immediately in that process if it’s possible for us to do so (i.e., homeschool).

Angela put it well tonight when she said, “Why should someone else get to experience all of Mara’s ‘firsts’ when it could be us?” The answer to that question for many couples is an economic answer, because both parents must work days, and for others it is a matter of personal sanity. Being with a child all day every day uses up a lot of one’s emotional energy. Ultimately, if we go that route, it will be Angela who bears the burden when it’s a grind. But I love her outlook. When it’s not a grind but instead a golden moment, why shouldn’t that moment be experienced by us as a family, as it was today?

On the way to church, a conversation arose about the planet Mars. Mara said she wanted to know more about Mars, what it was like. Angela said she didn’t know much about it, but that we could do some research.

That’s how it happens.


6 Responses to “cat”

  1. 1 Angela November 16, 2009 at 00:11

    My spine is still tingling!

  2. 2 Kip November 16, 2009 at 14:22

    A glorious moment, indeed! One I look forward to with baited breath! Now, to plot all underground parking lots in Boise….alas, no Whole Foods in Boise.

    • 3 jstwndrng November 16, 2009 at 14:52

      Kipper, when you get Will and Claire over here, we’ll have the alphabet refrigerator magnets ready.

      No Whole Foods, wow. Careful. When it comes to town (and it WILL come), it’s a slippery slope. We started going just for the organic produce, but then we started caring about how animals were treated so we started buying our meat there, and eventually we just swallowed the Kool-Aid (metaphor only dimly applicable) and now we live there. I know we pay a lot more for our food, but I figure we’re doing our part as world citizens to drive demand for food that’s sustainable, humane, organic, and when possible, local.

  3. 4 Kip November 16, 2009 at 21:17

    We were to get a Whole Foods, but the economy had other ideas! We, too, have refrigerator magnets. They’ve been on the box since before Will could stand! Of course, we didn’t realize he couldn’t hear them (they sing the letter and how it is pronounced-do you have those as well?) They’re wonderful!) until he was two, so he has been rediscovering the joy of the magnets.

  4. 5 jstwndrng November 18, 2009 at 17:27

    We don’t have singing magnets in this country, God be praised. Don’t they make you crazy? There’s a little plastic sphere that knocks around in various baskets of toys “no longer often played with” at our house, and when you bump this sphere it starts in with a wan, tinny electronic music. Drives me bats. Late at night while walking through the house to check the doors are locked I’ve knocked into the basket it’s in, and then had to dig through a bunch of Lamaze toys to find the thing, only to realize (again) that there’s no way to turn it off…except to leave it alone for a few minutes. Singing toys = no. I’m happy for Will, though, since he missed out on their charm for so long.

  5. 6 Kip November 18, 2009 at 18:47

    We have a few of those automatic touchmeandImakenoise toys. I, too, have knocked them in the dark and wished for silence. It’s usually Mickey Mouse or Elmo. Either way, it’s blessed quite when the voices stop.

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