This is how I learned to read. Every night, after supper, my family would sit cross-legged in a circle around the coffee table for family devotion. Devotion started with hymns which I loved, and then turned to Bible reading, which I dreaded.
Every devotion, without fail, we would read a full chapter of the Bible. We’d divide the number of verses by the number of kids and then each kid would read their share of verses. My three older sisters split the verses by thirds until I was five years old. Then we divided the verses by four and I started to read myself.
I learned quickly, without any fancy pedagogy. Just sounding out words syllable by syllable, under the watchful gaze of my parents and sisters. Starting out, I stumbled over every word, but my sisters would patiently correct my mistakes. My entire family willed me to read. It was not optional.
At five years old I began to accumulate quite a vocabulary of useful words like “cuckold” (David and Bathsheba) and “onanism” (Judah and Tamar).
I turned five in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania which is a little town in the mining and industrial sprawl of Scranton. We were the only non-white family in the entire town. When I was young, growing up Asian-American in a town like Clarks Summit was a skin-thickening experience. As a matter of fact, in Clarks Summit there were no “Asian-Americans”. There were only “chinks” and I learned quickly that chinks better learn how to run or punch.
School was misery. One day, out of the blue, my one and only friend “chinked” me. Betrayed and alone, I began to stew in a toxic brew of loneliness, anger, and humiliation. I didn’t see how things could get any worse.
Around mid-year things got much worse. Somehow my teacher figured out that I could read above grade level and she put me put into my own special reading group. I had to meet alone with her over lunch. She gave me special books with lots of words and no pictures. She meant well but she may as well have put a target on my back.
Suffice it to say, the white kids did not take kindly to the chink in their midst suddenly putting on airs.
When I was seven my parents moved us to Arlington, Virginia where, for the first time, there were other non-white kids in my grade.
For me the upshot of diversity was another group of kids to call me chink and waylay me in the schoolyard. I learned to my dismay that non-whites share little common cause. The word “chink” seemed to follow me everywhere, weaponized equally by black kids and white kids.
My chief antagonist was a little boy named Ty. He was black, popular, gregarious, and good at sports, and therefore my polar opposite. There was something kingly about him. Even as a little boy he had the dignity and presence of a born leader. Ty was the king of the school yard and I was as insignificant as a worm. He “chinked” me as casually as you might say hello.
The only time Ty seemed vulnerable was during reading circle. All the kids would dutifully sound out words in turn but when the circle came to Ty he would sullenly refuse to read. He glowered into the middle distance with his arms folded. His entire body seemed to harden as though encased in an impregnable shell.
At first the teacher, Mrs. H, would try to coax him to read. But eventually she and everybody else in the class simply wrote him off. When Ty’s turn came up in reading circle, the kids to his left and right skipped over him automatically and without hesitation, as though he weren’t even there.
Third grade was different. Our teacher was a round, silver-haired woman named Mrs. C. She was exactly the teacher an unruly group of 8-year-olds needed. Through kindness and wisdom, she inspired love and obedience.
One day during recess I noticed that Ty was absent from the yard. Peering into the window of the classroom I could see him huddled with Mrs. C over a book. I could barely recognize him. The rough belligerence that hardened his body fell away and he looked like the little boy he really was, hunched over a book, as his mouth made shapes around words.
Mrs. C began sending Ty home with books and their recess huddles became a regular thing. Ty cut ties with the louts in our grade and became an island unto himself, seeming always to have his nose in a book.
One day during story time Mrs C invited Ty to take her seat and read to us. Ty read from Charlotte’s Web, a story of a pig who is spared from the slaughterhouse by words in a web. At the scene of Charlotte’s death Mrs. C had to dab tears from her eyes. One of the toughest kids in the grade put his face in his hands to hide his quivering lips. The girls were openly bawling.
I was in awe. Ty’s reading brought the story to life for me. He gave it a soul. Such incredible power! That moment changed my relationship with books forever.
Middle school rolled around. I was identified as “gifted and talented” which meant I was separated from the herd into special classes with pasty nerds from important families. I got mountains of homework and was held to ever higher standards. My parents started to badger me about college. The pressure to “achieve” began to escalate into an incessant drumbeat of angst and expectation.
One day I excused myself from Latin class, to go to the restroom. I walked the halls aimlessly, feeling sorry for myself. Somehow I wandered into a distant wing of the building that was reserved for “special education” classes. That’s what they called remedial education in those days.
As I peered into the classrooms I was astounded to see that, save one, every single kid in the special ed wing was black. The one exception was a white kid with severe learning disabilities.
And next to that white kid sat someone I recognized. It was Ty. His arms were folded. His face was flat and expressionless.
I was transfixed. Gazing into that classroom, I was transported back to third grade, to the day when Ty’s gift of language made children weep.
Ty noticed me at the window and we made eye contact. We stared at each other, as through bars.