- Needles and Devils: Reading Memories
I remember that words—written or printed—were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies.—John Steinbeck
My husband Dave, at 56, could not read or write. He would sit at a narrow table across from a speech therapist who was his literacy teacher as well. She listened intently as he sounded out the letters, then put the letters together into words, the words into a question he tried to answer, laboriously drawing each letter in the blank space in his workbook. “Good!” the young woman encouraged in a high, bright voice. “You’re doing great!” She read his words upside down, then pointed. “Could this be another letter instead?” she asked, noting an error in spelling. He would sigh and shake his head and bend closer to the page.
Go around and sit beside him, I wanted to tell her, recalling my years as an adult literacy tutor in South Carolina, where I was raised. Raised well, raised to question everything and everybody, so that the only action I thought I could take in South Carolina was to leave. Returning to that state as an adult, after 15 years in other places, I looked around for something to keep me occupied, something fascinating. Did you know that 30 percent of adults in our county cannot read this? asked a tiny newspaper ad. Volunteer to teach one. Well, I guess I had always known. Hadn’t Mama, from behind the counter of our rural post office, helped people read letters and fill out forms for nigh on 20 years? [End Page 157]
One sits at the student’s left, we tutors were taught, if the student is right-handed. From that position, sitting beside Albert or Mazarine or Debra, I would run my left hand under each line of text, isolating it from the confusing forest of the page, while not getting in the way as my men and women struggled to complete simple sentences.
In Dave’s case, the position would have been the reverse, as he slowly became left-handed for the first time. His right arm, immobilized by a stroke that affected the whole right side of his body, lay dreamless in his lap or, if forgotten for too long, would drop suddenly from his atrophied shoulder almost to the floor. Then he might forget his place and have to start again, his pretty teacher cooing encouragement.
For months, I sat in a tiny, dark room behind a one-way mirror, listening through an audio system with too much treble. What came through to me was the hesitant, tinny voice of an old man. Where was my husband? Where was the man who walked to the public library every day, who read philosophy for fun, who had studied Earth’s history, information science, Eastern religion, and pedagogy? Was he gone forever? Occasionally, there would be no audio connecting me with the pair in the adjoining room. Behind my looking glass, I watched in silence—Dave’s intent expression, the way his head bowed over his workbook, the way her slim hand reached out to focus his gaze on a word. I recorded these details in my notebook (my personal savior) as Dave struggled with a process whose difficult nature, even after years as a reading teacher, was beyond my comprehension.
Before I could read, almost a baby, I imagined that God, this strange thing or person I heard about, was a book. Sometimes it was a large book standing upright and half open and I could see the print inside but it made no sense to me. Other times the book was smaller and inside were sharp flashing things. The smaller book was, I am sure now, my mother’s needle book, and the sharp flashing things were her needles with the sun on them.—Jean Rhys
Could I even remember not knowing how to read? No, I don’t think I could. It seems I had always read, or before that, pretended to read to Baby Brother, [End Page 158] pointing at the pictures and speaking the words Sister had read to me, in...