Because: Reflections on Learning to Read

Because Reading

Because

By Allegra Reiswig

I knew I loved words the first time after my mom read “The Children’s Hour” to me by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “I’m going to read your poem, Allegra,” she said as she turned the gilded pages of a hardcover library book. The baby was down for a nap and I was perched on the arm of our peach, cushy rocking chair with my two younger brothers.

“Mine?” I said, inwardly trilling to myself. “I have my very own poem?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s yours because it has your name in it.”

Turning pink, I leaned back into the armchair as my mother began Longfellow’s poem. I couldn’t read all the words yet, but I recognized my name on the page and watched it until her voice caught up:

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra.
And Edith with the golden hair.

Next to the poem was a drawing of the three girls creeping down the staircase to surprise their father. Allegra looks exactly as I imagined she would. She is giggling with long blonde curls and she leans over Grave Alice’s shoulder. Her eyes are the same shade of blue as mine. She is definitely an Allegra. I wondered about Grave Alice and Edith, why Alice must be grave and if she was bossy and why Edith, the youngest, doesn’t get to be “grave” or “laughing,” and instead just has “golden hair.” Instead of looking at Father, Edith looks at the reader with moody, serious eyes.

I grew up in a large, rambunctious household of seven children, and all of us were homeschooled by our parents. My mother created lesson plans, bought curriculum, wrote curriculum, graded our work, and prepared lectures, all the while facing this great responsibility with a textbook in one arm and a baby in the other.

Some time after she read “The Children’s Hour” to me, she taught me to read. We had started with Fat Cat and Pam & Sam, slim little books with rhyming words like “sat” and “mat” and “ham” and “jam.”

I had graduated from them relatively quickly, and started reading our white, thick Beginner’s Bible, a picture book of stories from the Old and New Testament. I enjoyed the way the letters joined together and formed different words and sounds. E was my favorite. Take it away, and a word changed its meaning completely. “Mat” from Fat Cat became “mate,” a harder word that was found in grown-up books.

“My feet are cold,” I complained to my mom.

“Then put some socks on,” Mom replied.

Most of my socks were stitched at the toes with pink thread, so I refused and my feet stayed cold. I wiggled my toes, showing off the chipped polish to my little brother Kegan who was playing with cars on the floor. He was too young to appreciate the patience it required to sit still long enough for my older sister to paint them.

Mom sat next to me on the couch. “Ok, go ahead, start reading.”

I was anxious to finish this particular Bible because once I did, I’d get eventually get my own. Both my parents and my older siblings had their own Bibles. My dad’s is like him – sturdy and pristine. His pages are never wrinkled or out of place. The cover is not torn and he does not write in the margins. Occasionally, he underlines verses with straight lines using a bold, black pen. In my six-year-old mind, I couldn’t have a Bible of my own until I’d finished the one on my lap.

It was so heavy I couldn’t lift it off my knees. The book had been read through enough times by my older siblings that when I spread it open, the pages didn’t flip back and forth. They stayed neat, smooth, and orderly, like Dad’s Bible. I was only as far as King David’s stories, and in the timeline of the Old and New Testament, I had a long way to go before I got to Jesus and Bethlehem. Once I was in Bethlehem, after a few parables Jesus would be killed and then resurrected, and I’d get more books of my own instead of going through the same ones my sister and brothers had already read.

I knew this David story already. He was about to kill Goliath with his slingshot. It was not the same version as the story in Dad’s Bible, though. This story ended too soon, right after Goliath died. It didn’t mention that David cuts off the giant’s head and carries it back to King Saul. It didn’t talk about his drunkenness or dancing or his multiple wives. I imagined carrying a severed head would be like carrying the ground beef my grandparents brought us from North Dakota, bloody and raw, smelling like scabs. For a brief moment I wondered if David put the head in a bag – if they even had bags in Bible times – and if the blood would’ve soaked through the material and dripped through the seams.

“Are you going to start?” Mom asked, interrupting my thoughts.

I nodded, breathing deeply. Reading aloud was a kind of performance. My brother Kegan was the only one with us, and I was glad because he was too little to make fun of me for pronouncing words incorrectly. My two older brothers were in their rooms working on their math assignments, and my sister was upstairs practicing her piano with the clarity and confidence of a brass marching band.

I started the story, stumbling through the double consonants and th’s and stopped when I came across the biggest, most confusing word I had ever read. It was more than one syllable and had four vowels and an e at the end. Because.

“Mom,” I said. “I can’t read this one. What does it say?”

She didn’t look in my direction. Despite my love for books, reading itself was tricky. I had used this excuse before. “Sound it out,” she replied, watching Kegan vroom his cars across the carpet.

“But I can’t!” I pestered, pulling on her blouse to look at this horrible word. She didn’t understand the importance of this situation. If I didn’t make it past this word, I wouldn’t finish the Beginner’s Bible and could never move on to larger, hardcover books, the kinds that didn’t have pictures. I wouldn’t be able to go back to the library, my favorite place in the whole world.

Friday was the best day of the week because that’s when Mom took us to the library. The building was the color of butter, the same shade as the pages in my parents’ books on the top shelf, the ones with frayed edges and the spines that creaked when I opened them, with that book smell that made me sneeze. Mom brought a giant box to the library with us, and as long as we were quiet, we could go through and pick out whatever books we wanted and dump them in the box to take home for two weeks.

At that point, my abilities hadn’t really evolved beyond Fat Cat, so I judged the library books by their pictures. I knew I wouldn’t like ones with cars or tractors or baseballs on the cover. Instead, I picked ones with pictures of animals, castles, and children. I knew where all the Madeline books were, and as well as Angelina Ballerina, Busytown, Babar, and Amelia Bedelia.

If Mom didn’t tell me what this word was, I could never go back to the library. I would never read the top shelf books. I would never own my own Bible that matched my personality like my Dad’s Bible.

Mom,” I whined. “I can’t.”

“Sound it out, Allegra,” she said again, reaching under the couch to get the car that Kegan vroomed out of reach.

“You can do it.”

I tried again. Because grew larger and the letters became bolder. It had two e’s and side-by-side vowels. Because threatened to overtake the story. I glanced at my mother, who was disentangling my brother from his blue, flannel blanket, with bears riding in brightly-colored hot air balloons. “Maybe you should wash Kegan’s blankie,” I suggested. “Can we take a break?”

“Read, Allegra.” Mom said, “Kegan’s blankie is fine.”

I looked out the window, hoping for snow. It was cold and gray outside, but chances looked slim. When it snowed, Mom stopped school and sent us outside with shovels to clear the driveway before Dad got home. If it snowed, I wouldn’t have to finish the story.

“My feet are cold,” I said.

“I told you to put socks on, and you wouldn’t. Finish your story.”

I looked at the word again and felt a hot, sticky feeling slip up my throat. “I can’t do it,” I whispered, trying not to cry. “It’s too hard.” I was crushed. This awful word was ruining everything. This was a Bible, it wasn’t supposed to use tricky words. It was supposed to be a good book.

“What does it start with?” Mom asked.

“It starts with a b…” I whispered.

“Ok, go on. Try.”

Out of excuses, I began again. “B. . .be. . .cuz. . .” I stumbled over the sentence. “Bee-kaw-yoooss . . .beee-cuzzz . . .”

Suddenly it clicked. Because was something I recognized.

“Mom, can we have some ice cream bars?” my brothers and I had chanted earlier.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” we shouted.

“Because it’s too close to dinner,” she countered.

“Because. . .” I said. “Because? Mom. Because? Mom, look. Because?”

Did I get it right? So much depended on her reaction. The future happiness of all my library Fridays depended on what she would say.

Mom kissed my brother and looked at me. “Why have you stopped?”

I expected her to explain the meaning behind it, but she didn’t. She didn’t congratulate me for reading such a big word with so many vowels. She didn’t suggest any improvement.

“I don’t know.” I said.

She smiled. “Go on. Keep reading.”

I finally grasped why because was so important. David never would have killed Goliath without because. He wouldn’t have had a reason to enter the Israelite camp. Without a because, or a reason, the visit never would have happened. The Philistines could’ve overtaken Israel, they would’ve won the war, King Saul would’ve died, and David would’ve never become King David or have written the Book of Psalms.

But there was a because. The because was the catalyst towards the future and made everything else possible. Because allowed me to pick out my own books at the library, books I could keep in my room and read to myself before I went to bed or when I woke up in the morning.

I finished the sentence and went on to finish the story. Later that spring, I finished the Beginner’s Bible, and eventually got my own Bible and started reading books with no pictures. I never told anyone about my revelation about because. I had figure out because and no one helped me and no one had to explain the reason why it was there. Because belonged to me.

 

Allegra Reiswig was homeschooled in Idaho from 1993 – 2003 before relocating to Minnesota with her parents. She graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) in 2010 with a BA in English and in 2013 with an MFA in Creative Writing. Allegra now lives, works, and writes in Denver, Colorado.

Committed to helping parents fulfill their God-given right and responsibility to educate their own children.