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Jewish Journal

The Downside to Literacy

"You're destroying [her ego] because of some ridiculous notion... that she has to be up to Tolstoy in kindergarten."

by Viva Hammer

October 31, 2002 | 7:00 pm

I honestly thought my daughter, Bruria, would never learn how to read. My nieces learned how when they were 3, and so I assumed that if I got in early, say around 2, Bruria would be in full swing by 3.

So I dutifully started with letters and sounds, labeling every item in the house, in a constant education mode. Nothing happened. Bruria loved listening to stories, but when I paused before a word to see if she could work it out herself, there was just silence.

By the time Bruria was 3 1/2, and there wasn't an inkling of literacy, I decided to take her to a nationally reputed reading expert. It was a whole operation to get her there -- with my husband and me, our nanny and new baby in tow -- and by the time we arrived, Bruria was hungry, and restless and about to have a tantrum.

After the interview, the specialist told us gently that there really wasn't any need to start with testing when a child was 3. But she did find that Bruria had phonemic awareness problems. I gasped -- a diagnosis! Now there was a project for me to jump right into.

No, no, no, the specialist assured us, there was nothing to do, just keep reading to her, morning and night, and come back if there was still a problem when she was 6.

"What on earth are you doing to the girl?" one friend asked me -- the one who had been reading when she was an infant, "She has such a wonderful ego, you're destroying it because of some ridiculous notion of yours that she has to be up to Tolstoy in kindergarten."

Suddenly, I came to my senses: self-esteem was in fact my goal. I wanted her to have the time to get through the literature I had forfeited when I became obsessed with school and grades. But this wasn't getting Bruria where I wanted her to go; in fact, she was just becoming nervous and unhappy around books. What a nightmare!

So we laid off for many years. She didn't come to the preschool interview leafing through "Jane Eyre," and -- to my great shock -- she was still admitted.

Last week, at age 7, Bruria finished her first novel, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" by Roald Dahl. I wanted to say "Shehecheyanu," the blessing we recite for new festivals or fruit (my husband explained the blessing is really only for tangible things). There are a very few milestones in life that really land you on a different plain, perhaps: taking your first step, childbirth, death -- and reading your first novel. There is no experience like it, each time you enter a completely imaginary universe and the writer takes you on a fantastical journey through places and things you could never experience or know -- and when you land back home, you're still on the living room couch. It links you with other eras and places and puts you right in the breathtaking center of the vast human dialogue.

Well it's all very nice, but now we're drowning in books. There are piles in the toilet, and next to the bath and on the kitchen table. Most of the time I'm asking Bruria to return the old ones to the shelf before getting out new ones, but she thinks that is ridiculous. How can you only be reading one book at a time? There have to be at least three different adventures progressing at every place she may be sitting at that moment.

I still read to her. And I am rediscovering all the wonderful worlds of words I lost so long ago when I decided I had to turn my precious literature into something economically productive. Thankfully, my daughter has no notion that her joy in books has any purpose other than pure enjoyment.

May it always be so.

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