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January 21, 2009

The Non-reading Gene

2 I am a bookworm who taught myself to read out of frustration when at 7 my grade one reading teacher was still grounding us to wordless picture books and asking us to tell her what was happening in the pictures. I still have the first book I ever read on my own, a Scholastic book club order. I hoped one day I would pass it on to my own child and he or she would read it too.

But alas, my only child is a non-reader. How the hell did that happen?

I grew up in a family of non-readers. Non-readers in the fiction sense. There was always a daily newspaper and my parents, who recognized that I was different, dutifully kept me supplied with children's magazines and later Time and Newsweek and saw to it that I got to the public library several times a month. When I had a child myself, I followed the rules that assured me I could have a bookworm of my own if I just adhered to the guidelines. And so I read to her daily and kept her supplied in all manner of thick cardboard and soft chewable plastic books.

But despite her love of being read to and her precocious imitation of my writing addiction, she stubbornly refused to read herself. When all of her preschool and kindergarten classmates were reading everything, including the walls around them, Kat was content to be read to.

Her father was not much of a reader. A talk radio addict, he followed the things that interested him via the airwaves. Working in a warehouse piled to the rafters with periodicals and books, he preferred to have nothing to do with the printed page on his off hours, so at first I blamed him for this deficit in my child. She would read if not for the preponderance of her dad's aliterate genetic influence.

Then I remembered how at fifteen months of age I had basically taught her to watch television. Unlike most babies I'd encountered, Kat was completely uninterested in the television beyond the remote which she jabbed at with chubby fingers and chewed like a puppy. I'd schooled her in Teletubbies in order to be able to shower without barricading the both of us in the master bath. My selfish need to not smell like a dead hobo was coming back to haunt me in the form of a child who would never be smart enough to leave home.

A former reading teacher myself, I still only half-listened to the reassurances of her teachers who did not share my panic. I knew without being told Kat's half-interest and difficulties fell within the age appropriate range. There was no reason to believe she would end up sitting with the other half-witted children in a classroom carved out of an old supply closet.

But still it puzzled me to the point of extreme irritation. Partly because I can't quite shake the hyper-parenting expectations of my generation but mostly because I feel like a failure for having birthed an average child.

Some of the worst parent/teacher conferences I held during my middle school teaching days were ones where I had to patiently explain to a mom or dad that their child was simply like everyone else's kid. Not genius. In fact nothing academically special at all. And I was always surprised by the crestfallen, sometimes desperate, reactions because I spent far more time counseling parents of children who had problems that would have sent even the most perfect of parents looking through the warranty for a way to send the child back. I vowed not to be one of those parents who mistook average for defective.

And yet here I am with a 6 year old who is being remediated in reading and feeling gypped despite the fact that it is still too early to know if reading is just something that will come slowly to her or if there is a real learning problem.

It made me think of my dad and his frustration with me when math turned out to be more than just my Achilles heel. The battles and the look of disappointment in his eyes are some of the indelible memories and I don't want that for Kat.

My daughter writes stories in the thin air and puts them to music no less. She dances. She has an aptitude for science that is nothing short of amazing in a little girl who shuns most things masculine in nature. And despite her reading struggles, she would rather be at school than anywhere else. So I remind myself that reading is a skill, and that as a teacher I never once met a child who couldn't read. And then I take a deep breath, and let it go - again.

Ann Bibby writes here at 50 something Moms and at her own site, anniegirl1138.

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