The Power of Words and the World of Books

Yesterday was National Book Day, with its emphasis on children's writers, and encouraging young people to read. There is no encouragement needed with our second son... He has always got a book in his hand... indeed one of the problems that repeatedly emerged in his recent parent-teacher interviews was his (bad) habit of rushing through his work in class so he could get back to whatever book he was reading at the time. He's also doing a sponsored readathon at the moment, which is about as challenging as sponsoring the average person for breathing! I joked with his English teacher that I didn't know where he got it from, having just placed on her desk the book I was reading in the time I had to spend queueing at each teacher's door.
Both Sally and I read fairly voraciously. Sally is the daughter of 2 teachers and grew up with a house full of books. I didn't. My mum wasn't really a reader at all. My dad was a keen reader of cowboy books that my mum got him from the mobile library that parked up the road from our house once a week. I think he had read every cowboy book that the Belfast Library Board ever purchased (underneath the little ticket pocket he put his initials so my mum wouldn't get the same book twice, but in the end every one she lifted off the shelf was emblazoned with TJC). 
I went along with my mum on these trips to the mobile library, and eventually got my own ticket. And that was the beginning of what is an addiction for me. It was further contributed to by my older brothers teaming up to buy me the Junior Encyclopedia. It came in 18 hard-backed sections, one every 2 weeks, and I was so excited to get each new one. Reading the different sections in that then prompted me to read other things and other authors, fact and fiction. I actually started to volunteer to do "extra homeworks" on the information I learned from the Encyclopedias and other books I was reading... pieces on planets, Greek myths, planes... book reviews... Is it any wonder I was always getting bullied as a swot... But I quickly learned to defend myself... I have no doubt that it was that experience that kick-started an academic career that profoundly changed the entire destiny of that working class protestant boy from east Belfast... It was through the school I went to after passing my 11+ transfer test that I came in contact with evangelical Christianity for the first time. And it laid the foundations for me to be the first in my family to go to graduate from University. So I understand the power of books and the words within them.
Opening a book, for me, is opening the door to a whole new world... a different time and place perhaps, filled with new information and experience. There is a physical thing to that of physically opening the front cover and stepping into the world within. I suppose that is why, for me, although I enjoy my kindle as a tool, it will never fully supplant wood pulp.
When we were listening to a piece on World Book Day in the car yesterday morning, my elder son, who is not such a keen reader, asked why that might be... Sadly I had no problems identifying the exact point that he stopped reading. As a small child he, like his brother had been a voracious reader... but had difficulty in reading out loud because of a hearing problem that meant he wasn't good at converting what he read on the page into words that everyone else recognised. He was receiving speech therapy on this, and his teachers were aware of the problem... But one of his teachers, at about the same age as my interest in books and reading was piqued by my brothers giving me those encyclopaedias, shouted at him in class for not being able to read the simplest of sentences without hesitation... telling him in front of his classmates that he was "useless" and "couldn't do English".
He stopped reading.
At this point the temptation to name the school and the teacher is almost irresistible. I encountered her at a conference last year, and it upset me so badly that I messed up a public performance that I had to do! But I won't name her. She's had her own problems since and we reported our concerns to the school, but by the time we had discovered exactly what had happened, the following year, through a chance conversation with our son and a friend of his, it was too late to do anything. He had shut himself off from the wonderful world of books because this teacher had told him he couldn't do English.
For 3 years he hardly picked up a book to read. it was only a change of schools and falling in with a bunch of boys who were all keen readers that slightly re-awakened an interest on that front... the fact that Harry Potter was all the rage helped... But the damage was done and he still doesn't read for pleasure much.
Sadly we have recently had a similar issue with a teacher making an ill-judged statement that has had a huge impact on the self-confidence and well-being of one of our sons, and we'll have to address that one now as well...

But, as I reflected on these experiences, it was a salutary lesson for me, or indeed anyone in a teaching or mentoring role with others, of whatever age. Telling someone that they CAN'T do something can have enormous long term consequences for them... However, putting the keys to knowledge and imagination in their hands, well, that too can have enormous consequences.

Do I want to be remembered as someone who squashes people's aspirations and closes off avenues of learning for others, or as someone who throws open the door to as yet unimagined worlds? 

No contest...

Now, I'm away for a read and a cup of coffee...


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