Mom instructed me to thank Sister Leona, but I knew she wasn’t really trying to help. She didn’t actually believe I needed prescription glasses, her purpose was to humiliate me in front of the other kids. I couldn’t read and she attributed that to either laziness or stupidity.
Mom was only able to see the good in people, but I saw the Sister for what she was, a mean old nun with zero tolerance for kids like me. She scolded me on a weekly basis. My prior track record didn’t exactly help my cause.
In the first grade she caught me playing catch with my hat during morning mass. Approaching from the pew behind she ordered me to “Stop it” while simultaneously smacking me on the top of my head.
Having been blessed with two brothers, seven and nine years older, I had developed an extended vocabulary at an early age. Thinking through the repercussions of my response probably would have been a good idea. Instead, I told her to “Go to hell.”
With a firm grip on my left earlobe, she yanked me out of the pew and dragged me off to the Mother Superior. There I made my next mistake. When asked why I said such a thing I replied with about the most idiotic defense possible: “I thought she was by brother John.”
The punishment both at school and home was harsh. The “Hat Incident” was held over my head the remainder of my days at St. John the Baptist School.
Hating school and pretending to be sick at least twice a month, one fine morning I just walked out of class and set out on a two and a half mile trek for home. My dash for freedom came to a screeching halt after encountering a pack of dogs patrolling the road in front of Bruno’s junkyard. Cut-off and frightened, I spotted salvation in the form of my grandfather’s car heading towards me. My celebration was short lived when I realized he was accompanied by my mom, who just happened to be armed with my dad’s leather belt. They plucked me off the side of the road and hauled me back to school. My penalty was to stand at my desk for the remainder of the week.
Topping the list in the second grade, I took some artistic license and painted what I believed to be an improvement on the wall mural depicting the first Thanksgiving. Sister said I not only destroyed the mural, but ruined everyone’s Thanksgiving as well. I also tracked a big wad of bubble gum into the classroom on the bottom of my shoe. Somehow it managed to get all over the desks and on the uniforms of a few of the good Sister’s favorite students.
With all that history between us, I cautiously approached the nun to relay my mother’s gratefulness for suggesting that I get my eyes examined. She glared at me over the top of her glasses as if waiting for the punchline. Then with her pointer she directed me to, “Go take your seat.”
Eyeglasses didn’t rectify my problem, over the years I continued to stumble my way through sentences. Reading out loud was embarrassing and I often had to guess at how to say a word.
Prior to entering high school I attended a summer reading program. Working on speed reading machines that the school claimed would improve my comprehension scores didn’t seem to change the fact that I couldn’t recognize the words.
It’s not easy to do book reports when you don’t read the books, but I found a way. While faking my way through a report on To Kill a Mockingbird, I came across this paragraph:
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. – Atticus Finch”
What if just for once I tried to read through an entire book? It was more than just laziness keeping me from making an attempt. I was afraid — afraid that I’d prove to myself I couldn’t do it.
I mustered up enough determination to start from the beginning. As I slowly worked my way through the story it started to come alive. I related to the smallest of details — a squeaky gate — a collard green patch. I connected with the small town setting where generations of families lived and few seemed to escape. Heck, that was my home town.
I was absorbed by the similarities of injustice, judgement and typecasting that was still evident in the fabric of American society.
The plight of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson returned me to the prejudice I experienced in Sister Leonella’s class. Bias goes far beyond skin color & social status, it also victimizes those with learning disabilities & physical impairments. The idea of being, “licked before you begin” may very well be one reason so many people fail to reach for something better in life.
Decades have passed and I’ve found a way to compensate for my reading difficulties. Life is good, but I’ve often wondered what would be different today if I had only taken Atticus’s advice at a much earlier age.
Maybe, it’s never too late to start.
Photo credit: lehman_11 / Foter / CC BY