In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens has his character Pip speak, “…I struggled through the alphabet as if it had been a bramble-bush; getting considerably worried and scratched by every letter.” Such was not my experience.
I was able to read two years before I entered First Grade. I distinctly recall the moment when I just knew what the combination of letters meant. No one had taught me and I did not want anyone to know about it. I snuck books off the built-in bookcases in our living room and hid behind the nearby large stuffed chairs. My mother’s uncle was a generous supplier of books to my older brothers and sister and they inevitably ended up on those shelves alongside old textbooks and a set of encyclopedias. I was the eighth child in a growing family that would eventually encompass thirteen children.
When I began First Grade, I acted like all the other children using those simple primers and pretended that I was learning to read for the first time. I thought I should keep my reading ability private and was certain I had succeeded until I inadvertently revealed myself early into my school career and my teacher caught onto my guarded secret.
Without thought, I took a thick children’s story book off her desk during an indoor recess on a rainy day, opened it and began to silently read. When she called me out in the hall, I thought I was in trouble for taking the book. Instead, she asked me how long I had been able to read and why I had not told her. She asked who had taught me to read. I do not know if she believed me when I told her no one had. I do remember that she let me take the book home and gave me a note to give my parents.
It was days after this that I started going to the Bookmobile. The town where I grew up did not have a Public Library. Instead, a Bookmobile would come every Thursday to a park that was a mile from our home. I wore thin my beige library card with the little metal plate that left an inked impression of the numbers on the library record sheets.
I walked the path to that mobile library nearly every week. I read an entire series of biographies that had black silhouettes to depict important events in the story. I read every Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables they could stock. The ladies who worked the large van gave me a special bag to carry the books back and forth and would sometimes have to remind me that I had already read a book when I presented them with my selections for checkout. It never mattered. It was not until I was in high school and able to drive that I went to the Main Library in the next town. I relied on that mobile, free book shop all those years.
On my first walk to the Bookmobile, my mother brought along their twelfth child pushing him in a large buggy, so the trip was slower than the pace I kept after that. The amazing thing when I look back is that she let me go alone every week. I asked her about it many years later and she told me that she knew in the midst of so many children I needed something special that was all my own. She also shared her belief that if you have a book you are never alone.
This paper and ink saga began nearly forty six years ago. I have moved to twelve different communities since childhood. Never have I been without a local library card. My scenery may have changed and my taste in literature has most certainly matured, but my need to enter the library, wander the stacks, check out books, and escape to a quiet place all my own has been a constant anchor. I never take this gift for granted. She was right. I am never alone.