Early in my marriage, a stepson arrived on my doorstep every other weekend as a troubled 8 year old. A learning disability imprisoned him as poor reader and student to the point that all his tests had to be read aloud to him. He didn’t fit in. He knew it and acted out. Naturally, he hated the sight of books, and all my efforts to read to him were spurned.
One day, a misbehavior earned him time-out, and I offered him his choice—either an hour in his room or sit with me while I read him one chapter of a book. (I know, I know—it’s contrary to all behavioral advice to make reading a punishment, but I was at wits’ end.)
He considered it and asked how long it would take to read a chapter.
“Probably about 15 minutes,” I said.
Fifteen minutes versus an hour. He wasn’t bad at math and chose the chapter. I went to my collection of childhood books, my heart pounding. It thumped away in my chest, warning me that this could be my only chance with him.
The books, stiff and dusty in their rows, whispered of cherished hours. Which to choose? I stopped at one, remembering pulling it from my mother’s bookshelf, hopeful from the title, though the company it kept was grownup stuff. By the first chapter, I knew I had found treasure.
Once again I pulled it out and took it back with me, clutched to my still thumping chest and sat with my stepson on the hard cement of the porch (part of the “punishment”). “Here are the rules,” I said sternly. “You have to sit still and listen. I will read one chapter. After that it is up to you if you want to hear more or go.”
He agreed, and I opened the book. I read my best, in honor of all the hours my Granny read to me, her voice cracking with the effort to bring the characters to life. I hoped to reach a young mind with the gift she had given me. I read and did not look at the boy beside me, afraid to see on his face the boredom of a prisoner doing his time.
When I finished the last word of Chapter One, I snapped the book closed, deliberately keeping my voice matter-of-fact. “That’s it,” I said. “What do you want to do?”
There was a long hesitation—maybe it wasn’t so long, but I remember it that way—a silence so deep, you could fall into it, and then one intense word from him—“Read.”
In the years ahead of us, he would repeat that word many times. We finished the book, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and moved on to many others. He began to sit next to me, at first to see the pictures, but when there were no pictures, he stayed to move his eyes over the words as I read. Eventually, I feigned a sore throat and asked him to read a sentence or two, and then a paragraph, and then a chapter, never criticizing as he stumbled and only offering help when he needed it.
One day, I poked my head in his room and asked if he was ready to read Part III of “our” current book. “Already read it,” he said. And once again my heart pounded, this time with mixed joy. He was reading on his own, voraciously, and we were never again to have those special moments together. But I am not complaining.
He read a lot about ordinary young boys becoming heroes, and I think it helped give him the courage to sign up for the Marines. Though not a physical boy—he played in the band and was ho-hum about sports—he thrived, and today is a successful career Marine with a wife and two sons I hope he will read to.
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.