I GREW UP in a home without books.
No novels. No mysteries. No biographies. No romances. Not even Dr. Seuss.
No one read to me before bedtime. In fact, no one read to me at any time.
Neither of my parents attended high school.
My dad, an Italian immigrant, went as far 8th grade and my mom only to 4th. She was abruptly taken out of school by my grandmother who, pregnant with her fourth child, insisted that she needed my mother to help her in the home. The teacher was incensed.
“You know, you’re not the only woman who has ever had a child.”
But grandmom got what she wanted and after that my mother struggled to read and write. I say this with great pain because mom compensated so well for her lack of formal education that no one, not even I, suspected her serious issues with literacy.
My father was a self-taught man and worked hard to learn how to write well. His many letters to my mother during WWII attested to his natural talent for turning a phrase. Later in life, he handled publicity for the local VFW chapter, submitting press releases and op-eds about veteran affairs to the town weekly.
However, the only reading material in our home was the daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and a well-worn copy of Webster’s Dictionary, circa 1945.
ON THE BACK PAGE of the dictionary was a reproduction of an edited version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And one day my father got it into his head that his 4-year-old chatter-box daughter should learn how to recite from memory the most famous speech in American history.
Before long I was spouting out Lincoln’s brilliant oratory in a squeaky little voice, fast and furious, from beginning to end.
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal …and that this government, of the people, by the people,for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Every time we left of our rowhome in South Philadelphia, one of the neighbors would stop us and insist that I recite the Gettysburg Address. They thought it was a hoot.
Of course, I was more than happy to perform, launching into full Lincoln mode even though I had not an inkling that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States -- and long gone.
THIS WAS MY introduction to rote learning. And I would get plenty more of it in Catholic grammar school. In fact, everything, absolutely everything, about my early education was based on cold memorization. Multiplication tables. Lists of spelling words. State capitals. Parts of speech. And, let’s not forget the Baltimore Catechism.
Each day, we memorized a few of the 421 questions and answers about our Catholic faith: Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. It also was abundantly clear that we would never entertain another possible answer to why God made us. Catechism is omnipotent. Though one day in second grade I made Miss Feeney almost lose her lunch when I asked this question:
“I know Adam and Eve were the first people on Earth. But what about the cavemen? Did they come before or after Adam and Eve?”
Miss Feeney gave me a smile, put her hand on my shoulder and then quietly walked away.
It was easy to become as parochial as my Catholic grammar school. All tucked in. Told exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to think.
The Gods of conformity almost won. But then something changed in 8th grade.
I LIKE TO THINK it was divine intervention that made Mother Superior decide to rotate instructors for each subject instead of leaving one, impatient and cheerless nun in charge of the same class all day long, sitting at her desk while everyone did “seat work” in their composition notebooks for hour upon boring hour.
This is how Sister St. George came to teach us English. But not the English of memorizing the parts of speech or diagraming sentences ad nauseam. She came to teach us literature. And she started with the short story.
O’Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.”
They were stories with vivid language and clever plot twists. And, for the first time, someone read to me.
And when we finished, sister would ask questions.
What did the author mean by this or that? Why did a certain character act in a particular way?
I raised my hand for every question, feeling that I just innately knew the answers.
That’s when I realized that without ever being exposed to literature of any kind, I possessed an understanding of literary devices, such as theme and motif.
If Sister asked, “What do you think the railroad stands for in this story?” I somehow knew that it represented more than a mode of transportation. The tracks that reached out into the distance could represent infinity or a desire to escape. The train itself might symbolize the country’s embrace of the Industrial Revolution.
Somehow, like magic, I knew metaphor.
Without ever being taught the constructs of literature I had ideas about what the author might be saying. I knew subtext and symbolism.
So, at the age of 12 I had an epiphany. Not a catechism-like epiphany, but a true visceral realization that a story exists on more levels than the simple action of going from point
a to b to c.
I HADN'T THOUGHT about this in a very long time, until a few years ago, when a Facebook post by a former grammar school classmate popped into my newsfeed:
“Dear OLPH classmates, my brother read that Sister St. George passed last week in her mid 90s.”
Remembrances, good and bad, starting pouring in: “RIP, Sister. God bless you.”
“I was literally terrified of her. Thank God I never had her for 8th grade.”
“She was tough but she was great.”
“They were tough because they had to be. Can you imagine handling 72 kids in the same classroom every day?”
Yes, the nuns were tough. And there were days when they crossed the line -- big time!
Thing is, the classrooms were enormous, the school days were long, and the kids were antsy.
But somehow, in my final year of grammar school, I discovered I might actually be … a writer.