Being a writer and an avid reader, I always hoped to instill a love of reading in my kids. That’s mainly because of how important reading has been in my life. I don’t remember how early people started reading to me, but the result was that I was not only an early reader, but an advanced reader.
In fact, when I was in pre-school, my teacher was impressed with my reading. What seemed to impress her most was that I already grasped punctuation. Where most of my peers would read sentences without stopping until the period, I figured out that commas indicated a pause. Most kids would read most of a sentence with a flat, expressionless tone, applying question marks or exclamation points only to the very last word. I figured out that they applied to the whole sentence, and read them that way. Reading aloud sounded a lot like just talking.
My teacher was so impressed she took me to a third grade class and had me read to them. Now that I think of it, that probably did little to endear me to my peers. But it did give me the idea that reading was important, and that reading well was important.
It turned out to be true for me in a few ways. It gave me — a skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black gay boy, growing up in the south, during the Reagan era — a means of escaping what was an incredibly depressing reality. (Actually, I med a writer of young people’s fiction, and she asked me what that experience was like. After I told her, she said it would make a good book in that genre, and I should think about writing it as a novel…) Recess would find me in a shady corner with a book, out of sight of the other boys, and hopefully out of mind. Later, I became a library assistant. I was the only boy, but I didn’t care since it gave me a reason to be even further from the playground during recess. I needed at least two things to survive — an easy escape to somewhere else, anywhere else, and an excuse to avoid my peers — and reading provided both.
Plus, if I had anything going for me at that time, it was that I was a fairly bright kid. Unfortunately, I was working with moderate-to-severe A.D.D., which would go undiagnosed until well into adulthood. I know that in some children A.D.D often comes paired with reading difficulty. For the most part, that wasn’t my experience. I’ve never been a fast reader, and that may be due to my A.D.D. I can recall my attention drifting from the page, and having to re-read sometimes, but reading and comprehending was never difficult for me.
In fact, reading was one of the was I compensated for my A.D.D. I never did well learning from lectures. In college, I tried taping them, but then I’d never get around to listening to the tapes. (Plus, that’s like going to class twice!) I’d take notes, but they weren’t always legible or complete. (A few times, I resorted to buying someone else’s notes.) But — and this was especially true when I started working on the web and learning HTML, CSS, and various software packages — I discovered that I could learn a lot just reading on my own, and taking notes on what I read or highlighting important passages. It’s something that’s carried over into my writing. I highlight, make notes, and even outline to organize my ideas. (The latter actually leads to longer pieces.)
Finally, reading saved my life as a gay man.
I retreated into books. I’d always been an avid reader, and I discovered that if I took a book with me everywhere, and buried my nose in it during recess and other times when I might have to interact with my peers, there was a much better chance that I might be left alone. I got in good with the librarian at school, and volunteered as a library assistant. So, during recess, instead of joining the other kids on the playground, I’d spend time in the library, shelving books, helping put up bulletin boards, etc., with the librarian and the other library assistants (who were mostly girls, as I remember). I learned how to use a library, a skill that has served me well for the rest of my life, and would serve me well as I figured out what was happening to me and why I was feeling what I was feeling.
Adolescence and puberty were setting in, and I found myself having other feelings for the boys around me, that were stronger and different than before; and another reason not to go into the locker room. It was clear that I wasn’t feeling the attraction to girls that the rest of male peers were – or were claiming to. So, what did I do? There wasn’t really anyone I could talk to. Especially my parents, who would just point me to the bible. So, I started reading. By that time I’d been called “faggot” more times than I could count, and I knew what it meant. But at the same time I didn’t. I wondered “What does it mean if that’s really the way I am?” I went to the public library, this time, took a big breath, and went into the section on homosexuality, once I’d located the subject in the card catalog.
In those shelves, I came across a book that I credit with saving my life. Its title was A Way of Love, A Way of Life: a Young Person’s Guide to What it Means to be Gay, and it was written by Frances Hanckel and John Cunningham; a lesbian and a gay man, I presumed. It was the right book for me at the right time. (Just a year or so ago, I decided I wanted it on my bookshelf at home. It’s long out of print, so I searched for it online, and found a copy. It’s sitting on my desk as I write this.) It covered everything; history, names for homosexuality (some of which I’d been introduced to already), sex, puberty, meeting other gay people. What I’ll always remember is that at the end, there was a chapter telling the stories of a dozen other people who were gay or lesbian. They were old, young, single, coupled, etc., and they were all living happy productive lives. By the time I finished reading it, I knew two things: I wasn’t the only one, and a happy life wasn’t out of my reach because I was gay. (I also knew that I had to get out of town. Augusta, Georgia is a pretty conservative town, and at the time it wasn’t a great place to be gay. My big plan was to go away to college and find other gay people there, which I did.)
I went back to school with a little more confidence, because I knew being gay didn’t mean I was a freak or some kind of defective. I knew there were others like me, and I knew that there were place and people out there that would be accepting, and that I just had to find them.
And later it saved my sanity as a black gay man.
Yup. That’s the book that led to my coming out. So you have it to thank or blame in that regard. If that book saved my life, then Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men saved my sanity when I picked it up while I was in college. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology came next. Between the two, it was the first time I’d read anything written by people whose experiences were so close to mine. Again, the effect was just knowing that I wasn’t “the only one,” which went a long way to keeping me relatively sane and helping me find my voice and use it to address my own experience.
More than anything, for me reading has always been a key to knowledge — whether self-knowledge or knowledge of the world around me. Once, not long ago, Parker asked me why I felt reading was so important. “Because if you can read and understand, you can learn almost anything,” I told him. “And what you have up here,” I said pointing to his forehead, “is something no one can take away from you.”
But I realized that probably my example had more impact than my words, because Parker has alway seen me with a book in my hand, or some other reading material. (I don’t go anywhere without something to read.) Once, a few years ago, when Parker was playfully imitating me, he did it with a book in his hand — sitting next to me on the couch, until I happened to look over at him. We both laughed, and I remember thinking that of all he sees me doing, I’m glad that’s what he chose to imitate.
Soon, he started reading road signs when we were out driving, an would ask us what a certain sign said if he couldn’t read it. Later, when I read to him, he would stop me and ask me to point out a particular word to him. I figured he wanted to know which word that was when I read it. Then, he would want to “read” the word himself, as I read the story with him. Now, we take him to the library ever few weeks and let him pick out books that we spend the next few weeks reading at bedtime. He picks out books on what interests him. (Right now, it’s dinosaurs and “Star Wars.” And I’m grateful that he’s no longer checking out the Pokemon books.)
We always read to Parker. I heard somewhere that reading to an infant is helpful no matter what you’re reading. So, when he was a baby I read to him from whatever I was reading at the time. Later, we got him various “board books,” and read them to him. We got him other books, too, and read those to him. He’d ask us to read them to him over and over again. Now, he’s a pretty good reader himself.
Now we do the same with Dylan. We got him some of his own “board books,” and some of the books that he’s “inherited” from Parker. Now Dylan asks us to read them over and over again. And we do. But now there’s an added bonus. Now Parker is sharing the love of reading, and of books, with his little brother.
As a reader, a writer, and a dad that makes me feel pretty damn good.