How I Became A Reader (and a Writer)

Like the other people who have answered this question, my relationship with education was an odd one, and my introduction to reading started early.

My mother taught me to read by getting me a Dr. Seuss Books subscription–one book in the Dr. Seuss line-up came to our house every month, and went into rotation with the growing stack of Little Golden Books that I think she picked up for me from the grocery store. She read to me, and when I started memorizing the books, let me “read” to her. My parents spelled things out in front of me that they didn’t want me to know–early on, understanding the relationship between letters and words became a high-value pursuit for me, and by the time I was five, I could read well and they had to give up spelling anything because I’d broken their code.

This presented a few problems when I started school. I already knew how to read, so the odious Dick, Jane and Spot books that my first school used as primary readers didn’t even slow me down. Nor did they engage my interest. I dutifully filled out the mimeographed worksheets we were handed, and I did the reading (in about three minutes), but my teacher ended up giving me other things to do to keep me busy.

I liked writing projects, though, because then I could use my own words and engage my imagination in telling a story that I found interesting. The first time my writing was recognized as being exceptional was in the first grade, where my teacher chose a three-page story I’d written about Winnie-the-Pooh (going well over my assigned wordlimit to do so–an issue I have since mostly resolved) to read aloud to the class. This was a big deal for me, and I still clearly remember my delight at both pleasing my teacher and interesting my classmates. My story had a beginning, a middle, an end, and a plot, even if it was a pretty minimal one. (Pooh was having issues with bees and honey.)

I lived for Scholastic books, because if I was very careful with the budget my mother allotted to me, I could get three or four books out of every order.

Aside from that, though, I remained mostly bored by school and ahead of my classmates through the third grade, when we moved to Alaska.

The trip to Alaska changed my life. Suddenly, I was in a one-room schoolhouse with grades one through six all taught together, and I was the only native English speaker in my class. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t make friends; I was too different, and unlike the other children there, I had parents.

Besides, I was good at school; this was a big issue for children who were struggling with the basics of speaking English. I was seen as privileged (and compared to them, I was.) So I was isolated, and very lonely. However, along with being encouraged to read books to the kids who were having trouble learning to read, I was given carte blanche to read anything I wanted, any time I wanted. This took the place of most of my classwork. I did my required math, and then I was left to my own devices.

This was wonderful in two ways–first, the missionaries who’d been dorm parents before my parents took over had been science fiction and mystery readers, and had left their extensive collection of books behind. I read most of them, in spite of the fact that most were written for adults. Second, the boys dorm had an enormous collection of National Geographic magazines from the 1800s and early to middle 1900s, and I read all of those, too. Science fiction and National Geographic both had a special resonance for me, because I was in an alien culture, completely cut off from the world I had know up to the age of nine. I absorbed myself in other alien cultures, fascinated by all the possibilities, consuming our world, its history, and its possible futures at a tremendous rate.

We returned to the world I had known (Ohio) in time for me to start fifth grade, but I was not the same kid who’d left. I’d lived without plumbing, hot and cold water, television, 24-hour electric, and friends who spoke English. I’d learned to carve linoleum block prints, run a hand printing press, weave a fishing net, walk in snow shoes, ski, drive a snowmobile and a boat with an outboard motor and a dog team, shoot a gun, paddle a kayak, set nets for salmon, and countless other real-life skills that meant survival. I’d learned to read for entertainment. And I’d been cut loose from the lock-step educational model I’d left behind. I never bothered trying to get back into step again.

From fifth grade on, I read my textbooks when I brought them home for the first time, then never bothered with them again. I took a cold and distant view of homework; my opinion was that if teachers weren’t good enough at what they did to teach me what they wanted to know in the many hours a day that I was at school, why should I bother with their crap in my own time? Unless a grade rode on the homework, I didn’t do it. What I did with my own time was teach myself. I learned to roller skate, hike, read maps, sew, draw, paint, do various crafts.

And then my folks took us down to Central America, where for seventh grade, I went to the Friendly Hippie School (actually called the Costa Rica Academy) in San Jose, where I learned to build geodesic domes, create my own cartoon characters, unlock the mysteries of the Mayans, design my own science experiments (teaching a parrot to talk and determining how long it took ants to find and clear measured amounts of sugar from different locations in and around our home), and other goodies way, way outside the normal US factory-school curriculum. The librarian turned me on to Tolkein. I was the only missionary kid in with a bunch of kids who thought I was weird. I finished my school year early and became the youngest student to that point to be accepted into the Instituto de Lengua Española. My fellow students there ranged in age from twenty to seventy. I was fourteen. It was a tremendous learning experience. After my trimester there, we moved to Chiquimula, Guatemala.

And I homeschooled (a horrible, horrible Christian correspondence course that had no redeeming value whatsoever, except that it was so easy I could knock out a day’s work in about half an hour). I attended the Quaker school next door, which was taught in Spanish–I found the challenge of doing classwork in another language much better than the awful correspondence course. And in my free time, and I had a lot of it, I unravelled a moth-eaten cable-knit sweater and taught myself to knit by watching the stitches come undone. My first project was a very small cable-knit sweater. I taught myself to read basic music and play the piano in the mission, and hung in the hammock reading the stacks of ancient Readers’ Digest Condensed Books and magazine issues there. I discovered both Cherry Ames nurse novels and Charles Dickens in the mission library, and read those by the pound, and then tripped over Cervantes and the magnificent Don Quixote. In the evenings, I sat around and argued politics with the David the Socialist Draft Dodger (AKA concientious objector) who thought communism was a great idea, and fell madly in love with Loren the Vietnam Vet who was fresh from the war and suffering from shell shock, and who never knew of my wild adoration. At least I hope he didn’t, poor guy. They were both mission volunteers, and when they went, another batch came.

And then there was the earthquake. Feb. 4rd, 1976. BIG earthquake. Devastating. We ended up back in the US, back in Ohio, and as far as anything like regular education was concerned, I was completely broken. Don’t get me wrong. I made great grades. But it was a game, and I played it like a game. I read the books I wanted to read in class, I did only the homework that was required to pass the course, I studied for the teachers I liked and blew off the teachers I didn’t, I took courses that interested me regardless of the college-prep value, and kicked around in summer school with my friends simply because we could rack up extra credits toward graduation that way. I had no intention of wasting my time in college; I knew I’d had enough of sitting in desks and being talked at. I had a couple of great teachers, a pretty good pool of good ones, and the usual execrable disasters, but I knew by then that my life was going in a different direction. For fun, I taught myself to play guitar, and I wrote notebooks full of dreadful, angst-ridden songs. I had a few friends (some of whom are still friends today), I hiked the hills around our house in the country, and I read. Everything. I finished off most of our school library, and became friends with the librarian. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. I ordered everything that hinted that it might contain questionable content. I devoured anything with words, in any subject, any genre.

I was established as a reader, I knew how to find out whatever I wanted to learn by reading and then applying what I read, and I’d determined that I was going to be famous. I didn’t care whether it was as an artist or a musician, just so long as fame was in my future. I tried out dramatic signatures on my teachers. (The John Adams clone signature didn’t go over too well.) My junior/senior English teacher had us keep a notebook, in which we had to write five pages a day. Didn’t matter what we wrote, but by the end of the semester, the notebook had to be full. I’d always written, I’d always received positive attention and praise for doing it, but that was the moment in which I discovered I could write in bulk. It had never occurred to me to do that before.

It took me years and a bad marriage to come back to what I’d learned about writing pages per day, but I did eventually get there.

And here.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

12 comments… add one
  • Diana Brandt Aug 7, 2010 @ 19:38

    Yes, wow! How cool you had the opportunities to go to other countries and live the life you did. I think for most of us probably we never thought we had a choice to be different. We lived life in certain parameters and if you went outside them you paid for it. We were forced to conform.
    My dad who I dearly miss taught us to think for ourselves and question everything. But when he lived that way he paid dearly for it and we ended up poor and living outside the acceptable social structure. It was very hard. Besides being a reader I was also an artist. That was what I concentrated on. But unless you are brilliant it’s hard to go against society’s values and rules and not become ordinary. That’s what I struggle with now. Now I really don’t care what the “rules” are. And I regret not pursuing my art or becoming a writer. Then you get stuck in the life you have which no longer fits you.

    • katinka Mar 26, 2011 @ 0:43

      Diana, you aren’t dead yet. Life is too, too short for regrets, and if you have them, they are for things you truly cannot change, yet things you learned from because of not being able to change them. It is NEVER too late to do what you want to do. Pick up your pen, and write. Just my humble opinion, but an opinion built on experience.

  • shawna Sep 3, 2006 @ 13:27

    Somehow I missed this post when you posted it, and only just now saw it thanks to the comments bar. Though my life has been nowhere near so exotic, I see similarities in our reactions to schooling. With the exception that I was trapped in public school, because I couldn’t convince my parents otherwise… homeschooling wasn’t really an option in this state at the time, and the private school I considered second best, because they’d let me work at my own pace, wasn’t an option financially. So I spent years doing the work because I ought to, and hating it— though it took til my senior year before I finally said to hell with it, and started avoiding classes I hated. AP English being one of them. Oh, did I hate that teacher. She even had the nerve to tell me not to bother to take the AP test, because I couldn’t possibly pass it. She never even bothered to congratulate me after I rec’d the first perfect score on that test for my school.

    I think my second-grade teacher has no idea how she saved me… realized I was bored, and steered me to her Nancy Drew collection, which, of course, no one else ever read. I devoured everything I could get my hands on, and still do.

    My children’s father wasn’t so lucky. They saw his boredom, called it misbehavior, and kept him back a year, which did not help… he spent years hating school, reading all the texts, but doing little of the busywork… finally skipped so much in high school that he gave up and quit. Was convinced to go back to try again, actually did the work for once, and got straight As for a term. And since he’d proved he could do it, he promptly dropped out again.

    They didn’t catch his potential. And today he’s this mess of could have been, should have been… and no direction. I’m terrified of that happening with my kids, and I keep a pretty close eye on the ones in school. This year, three are home… and by next, it may be all four.

  • hollylisle Sep 3, 2006 @ 9:46

    Katie—it’s because public schools have become disasters of bureaucracy and social engineering that fail to give the majority of their students even a passing semblance of a functional education that we homeschooled and are homeschooling ours. If your parents would let you homeschool, I’d highly recommend it.

    Take a look at Unschooling for the modern-day way to obtain the sort of education I got, and a growing number of kids get today.

  • katiehasen Sep 2, 2006 @ 14:22

    I’ve just been struck with the urge to quit school and move to Alaska. (And I realize that this is a year later than when you posted it.)

    I wish I could do what you did in school, but unfortunately the American Educational system has tightened their requirements. If, theoretically, I didn’t do a math homework (and I mean one [1] homework out of countless ones), I’d be instantly given a zero in the class for the semester. With all the testing, teachers now skip over any interesting stuff and instead rush to cram as much dull information into students’ heads as possible. Maybe I should just join the peace corps for a few years, lose my glorified ideas of college, and get a job driving a taxi.

    So, yeah. Sorry for writting a novelette in the reply box.

  • scottbryan Dec 20, 2005 @ 11:55

    Thanks Hol – just what I needed today.

  • Jenne Dec 19, 2005 @ 23:04

    What a great story! I can definitely see your love of learning in your books.

    I know people think I’m weird because I still love learning, but I want to know everything. (BTW, my kids want to know how long it took the ants to find and clear the sugar.)

  • shelbi Dec 18, 2005 @ 0:18

    Wow, Holly, your story would make an amazing children’s book!

    I am amazed how different in content all of the stories shared here have been, but how similar the feelings are that we all had.

    The first article you wrote about this came at a weird time for me. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my childhood and the ‘issues’ I am still trying to deal with a million years later, and I can honestly say that most of the garbage in my life was a direct result of my school experience.

    I feel like I’ve been passed out in the back seat of my life, and the drugs are finally starting to wear off. Now I have to figure out how to drive a damned stick shift!

    I am just now learning to think for myself, find my truth, and speak out about it, no matter what. I am finally finding my voice, and that’s a wonderful, terrifying thing.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your story with us, Holly, I really appreciate it.

  • Crista Dec 17, 2005 @ 23:55

    You know, if you edit out the bits about living in Alaska and Central America, your atttiude towards school is eerily similar to my own. I even had a story win first place in my school’s young authors contest when I was in first grade (and again in fifth grade). I viewed school as a game. I did what was required of me. I read my textbooks from cover to cover the first day I got them. I only did enough homework to cover my ass. I aced my tests without having to study (I owe that mostly to a photographic memory). I did most of my learning outside of school hours. I’ve self-taught myself about 90% of what I know because I was bored throughout my childhood.

    I think I crashed and burned on college because I was still bored and just damned sick of sitting in a classroom and being lectured at.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Makes me feel like I was a little less of a complete weirdo as a child. Or maybe I really was a strange little child. But at least there are other strange little children out there, too.

  • Jim Dec 17, 2005 @ 23:35

    Holly, that was a marvelous story, and it is evident how and why you have become the tremendous person — and incidentally tremendous writer — that you are.

  • Chassit Dec 17, 2005 @ 17:32

    That was amazing Holly! Thanks for sharing that with us! No wonder you write such great books, your life is amazing!

  • Rick Dec 17, 2005 @ 11:45

    Wow. Just… wow, Holly. That’s incredible. Than you for sharing that.

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