Lily Zhou, 8th grade
“One morning, the night…night-ing…”
“Read it again.”
“One morning, the night-in-gale met the inchworm….Do I go on?”
“‘Measure my song,’ said the night-in-gale. ‘But how can I do that?’ said the inchworm. ‘I measure things, not songs…’”
I first learned to read at five years old.
If it’s looked at a certain way, reading is simply words strung together by letters, like good-luck charms on a wire. But that’s easier said than done; at five years old, I couldn’t do it. The letters weren’t the problem; I had already mastered them. My struggle was with combining those letters into something that fit, something that made sense.
Of all people, my father – a Chinese immigrant whose English speaking skills were even worse than mine – stepped up to teach me.
He took out Inch by Inch, the story of an inchworm who measured the lengths of birds in exchange for not getting eaten. Each afternoon, he would take out the book, and I’d begin reading from wherever we left off. My father taught me new words in his slow, careful speech. His accented pronunciations were a far cry from my kindergarten teacher’s; he spoke Mandarin, not English. Nevertheless, I went along with whatever he said, though I was anything but cooperative.
I often fantasized about watering the lilies and running around in the afternoon sun, dodging pink-flowered trees and trimmed rosebushes. But my daydreams were quickly put to an end with a sharp “Concentrate!” and impatient taps on the page.
“This is boring,” I announced one particular afternoon. “It’s stupid and makes no sense.”
My father frowned. “Reading is important. You will need it later in school, when you read from textbooks. Besides, if you master this now, you will be far ahead of your classmates.” He paused. “And the next word is ‘flamingo.’ Fla-min-go.”
“I wanna go outside,” I whined.
“After we are done.”
Strangely enough, what I remember best were the pictures, my life-saving air. The words, meanwhile, were the merciless waves of water. Too many words and I’d drown, but with pictures in between, it was alright. I could breathe. Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, reading Inch by Inch was like dipping a toe in the pool of words. Like testing the waters. Like an introduction.
Minutes slipped by, one after another, until my dad closed the book and said, “Alright, that’s enough for today.” With each passing day, these words became less like a relief and more like a burden. Yet with each passing day, my vocabulary expanded word by word. Under my dad’s guidance, I improved bit by bit, “inch by inch”.
In retrospect, I’m not quite sure when the afternoon sessions stopped, when I started to read on my own. The days from reading with my father to reading by myself seem like a color gradient: spread so thin one couldn’t tell where one color ended, where the other began. Most likely, my father caught me with a book in my lap, oblivious to my surroundings, and decided that there was no longer a need for afternoon reading sessions. Most likely, he decided then and there that I was good on my own.
I now savor novels, short stories, poems of any length, any genre. I don’t need that breath of fresh air now; words have become that. Because of all people, my father – a Chinese immigrant whose English speaking skills were on par with mine – taught me to read.
“‘…he measured and measured…Inch by Inch…until he inched out the sight.’ There. I’m done.”