June 5, 2017

STEPHEN CARTER: The Second Time I Learned To Read:

Mrs. Dickey taught me to read. Not to read. To read.

I arrived in Ithaca reasonably well educated in every field but literature. Oh, I had read a bit of Shakespeare and Dickens, but only because my 8th and 9th grade English courses required it. Over the years I had gorged myself on comic books (my maternal grandparents owned a candy store and saved copies of our favorites for our summer visits) and science fiction (Bradbury and Asimov and Heinlein, yes, but also a lot of schlock — I am embarrassed to admit that in those days I could quote Tom Swift by the yard). I read voraciously, but my choices were filling my head with junk. My mind was agile but not disciplined; quick but not reflective; I was much better at snappy answers than thoughtful ones.

Mrs. Dickey changed all that. She took me aside one day after class and asked me why I read such junk. (She used the very word.) I replied, a bit stupidly, that I liked what I read and I read what I liked (or something equally unclever.) I grew defensive. I refused to concede that there was anything wrong with my tastes. I was, in short, a fool.

And so she offered me a deal. She would read any three books I gave her if I would read any three books she gave me. Then we would get together after school to talk. I agreed.

Best deal I ever made.

I do not remember what books she gave me, except that they were thick hardcovers. I believe one might have been a Thomas Hardy. It makes no difference. My English teacher was right, and I was wrong. Some books are better than others. And as a teen I had no way of judging for myself.

Without that bet, I would still have read serious literature when I had to, but I’m not sure how much I would have read because I chose to. Mrs. Dickey had taught me that there are things one ought to read. I put away the books of sports records and pulpy sci-fi. By the time I finished high school, I had read all of Shakespeare, the sonnets included.

When I started college, although I began as a physics major, with lots of work in math and computer science — you can’t entirely ungeek the geek — I was drawn increasingly to literature. In those days you could still find a jampacked course on Western Civilization and read the great books.

In those days. Meanwhile, I had a similar experience. My 9th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Gass, encouraged my creativity in writing. But my 10th and 11th grade teachers, Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Ferguson, forced me to read critically and to write clearly.

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