My introduction to reading was rocky. I was several weeks into kindergarten when my mom received a call from the teacher. “I’m afraid MaryKay is not learning her alphabet,” she said. “We’re concerned.”
“When can I visit the classroom?” my mom calmly replied.
She immediately spotted the problem. The teacher had placed me in the last of five rows and was teaching the alphabet from a line of letters seven inches high running the length of the blackboard 30 feet from my desk. No wonder I wasn’t learning the alphabet–I couldn’t see it.
I have a vision condition in my left eye called amblyopia that begins in early childhood when an eye fails to develop normally and cannot be improved with prescription glasses or contact lenses. They call it lazy eye syndrome which, untreated, can lead to a wandering eye. I was two years old when my mom noticed I was rubbing my left eye a lot. The diagnosis resulted in a year of living with a patch over my seeing eye in order to strengthen my weak eye.
I remember the strong smell of the adhesive Band-Aid-like eye patches. My mom kept extra small blue boxes of patches in a basement cupboard. When we’d run out upstairs, I’d follow her down two long flights of stairs on a march that felt like a sentence to the dungeon. Covering my functioning eye with a patch turned my world fuzzy like gazing through a pane of glass smeared with Vaseline. I recall watching TV with my sisters and sneakily making a tiny gap at the top of my patch. If I tilted my head, chin to chest, I could see the TV through the small hole. It worked until my sisters called me out. To this day, when I’m fully engrossed in a movie, I find myself, head down, peering at the screen from the top of my eyes.
Crying was particularly dramatic as my right eye patch would fill to the point of bursting. I’d pull the adhesive away from my skin, releasing a waterfall down my cheek. Even my sisters, generally oblivious to my crying fits, found this particularly heart breaking to witness. It wasn’t an easy year for my mom either—strangers staring, other kids taunting me for looking different, inquiries about what was wrong with me. At the end of the year, my weak eye had gained enough strength to track objects. I would not have a lazy eye, but would require glasses.
So, my blue cat-eye glasses should have been an indicator that learning the alphabet from the back row wouldn’t be a winning plan. After a desk was arranged at the front of the room, my mom loaded me in the car and headed to the University of Washington bookstore. She found a box of 26 laminated cards, each containing the upper and lower case of a letter with space to write in erasable crayon. She taught me the alphabet in one night. It was at that very moment I fell in love with letters and words.
The next day, the teacher let me bring home a large-volume early reader book. My mom and I spent each evening going through its pages. I quickly began to sound out words and string them together into sentences, becoming lost in the stories those sentences formed. It was like discovering a new world.
I’m fairly certain I was the only second grader I knew who would clean her room for the reward of a book. This time, instead of heading to the basement for a new eye patch, my mom would inspect my room and we’d walk down one flight of stairs to the front hall closet. Tucked on the top shelf, behind old hats and well out of reach of my sisters and me, was a box of Scholastic books. The thrill of a new book is the same for me today—the feel of its glossy, unmarred cover, the smell of pages opened for the first time, the anticipation of awaiting stories.
In the fourth grade, I joined my first book club. A small group of kids who met weekly with a parent volunteer to discuss a wide range of books that we read at a vigorous rate. They remain as some of my favorite books—The Mouse and The Motorcycle, Harriet the Spy, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Borrowers, Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden. My love of books progressed to a college degree in English and a career that has always involved working with words.
I recently moved 8,000 miles from a house in the woods to a skyscraper in a city of five million. The contrast was jarring. Birdsong and trees were replaced with construction noise and steel, not to mention an entirely new culture and customs to adapt to. Each day I’d head out in search of something that would connect me with my new surroundings in a meaningful way. I found beautiful parks, museums, a performance venue and riverside walk. I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing—that something or someplace that would provide an emotional anchor to this new place.
Then one day I took a different tram route home that deposited me in a part of the neighborhood I hadn’t explored. Following the walking route on my GPS, I rounded a corner to find myself in front of a beaming brick building with turret-style roofline, freshly painted trim and inviting front door. It looked like a former grand estate—if I had to guess, dating from the late 1800’s. Clearly cared for, the building proudly held its own wedged between a freeway ramp, busy street and skyrises.
Inside I discovered a community hub—a multi-purpose room brightly lit from large paned windows, a seating area with cozy chairs, a charming café tucked into one corner and a library inhabiting an entire wing. I immediately knew I had found my place.
The library itself was a wonderful surprise and not at all what I would have expected from the building’s stout exterior. The room was both spacious and cozy with large windows running along each of its longer sides and a high ceiling. There was an old fireplace in one corner and the shelves were arranged in an interesting, maze-like fashion punctuated with pockets of space containing generous, stuffed chairs.
Drawn to a bookshelf deep in the room, I began pulling books off the shelf as if I had arrived at that very spot with a list of catalog numbers in hand: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown, You are a Badass by Jen Sincero and several more. I emerged from the flurry, arms spilling with a stack of books—not just any books, but the genre I had dismissed an entire lifetime: self-help.
That night I sat surrounded by my new helpers, flipping through their pages, pulling sustenance from words I voraciously read. I was overcome with a wave of gratitude. Gratitude for an observant mother who taught me how to read, grateful for the wisdom found within books that had seemingly “found” me when I needed them, and gratitude for the sanctuary of a library that made a faraway place feel like home.
Like an old friend, when the world was tripping me up, words were there to catch my fall.