About twenty years ago, I was a middle school kid who loved to read. Not just a certain genre, not just comic books or young adult fiction or magazines. I would read everything. Toothpaste cartons and hairspray containers, magazines about cars and hunting, signs on every road I traveled and the words of every page that passed in front of me. It was understood among my friends not to let me see a magazine or we would be there until I read every word on every page. I stole from doctors and dentists- taking their magazine because my compulsion would not allow me to leave without reading what I started.I was not selective. It all had to be absorbed, and as quickly as possible. I've never gotten carsick. I read everywhere and at every opportunity.
A girl I was friends with attended a local Baptist church and her father was a youth pastor. He drove the van that went around the neighborhood and then to some sketchier neighborhoods not far from where we lived and he picked up all of these kids that wanted to attend Wednesday night services. My friend and I would hop in the van, we'd talk him into taking us to get a soda and off we would go on our rounds. We had so much fun bouncing around in the van, going to church group services, eating and playing and then heading home all giddy and amped up. These Wednesday evenings were at a time in my life when certain memories became etched into my psyche and I was starting to see the world for what it really was. He would sometimes talk to us on these trips, before we got to the other kids, and he was very kind and inspiring and I think he was so happy to be doing something that he thought made a difference. He'll probably never know this, but it made a huge impact on me and only now am I able to see how it happened.
As we were riding along one night, I was talking to another kid in the van about something I read and he asked why I read that, was it for school? I told him no, that I simply read everything that I could find, I didn't even know why. He told me he didn't like to read. No one had ever said that to me before. I knew that most people didn't read like I did, but I couldn't bring myself to comprehend someone not liking to read. We talked a little more and I came to find out that it was because he couldn't read very well. That changed everything. If he could read well, he would read more. I decided I was going to help this kid learn to read better. I brought activity pads on the van rides and waited for him. Some weeks he came, some weeks he didn't but when he did, he always played the word games; search a word, crossword puzzles, fill in the blank, word scramble, it didn't matter. We weren't in the same evening group, but the ride to the church and home were the times I had to work with him, and I did. When it got dark, I brought a flashlight. He started to really get it, and I had a tiny light bulb go off in my head. I wanted to help him, and I thought I had. I'll never really know, he stopped riding the van to church.
Not long afterwards, my dramatic pubescent brain was writing poetry in the blank airspace of my mind's eye on the way home from church and I had a thought that has lingered in my mind all of these twenty years; Literacy is the key that unlocks the shackles of oppression, but understanding is the wings that will help you fly away. Without knowing how to read, you are destined to be deprived, kept away, held down and locked out of all that life has to offer. Furthermore, it is not good enough to know how to read, one needs to know why they read and what they are reading and what it all means. I used to play on the playground with my friends and the younger kids as we waited for the evening services to start. I recall telling them how they needed to stick up for themselves, to understand that every one of us was perfectly imperfect, that there was no reason to feel bad about yourself. I used to school these kids on self esteem, hoping to raise theirs while I tried to find mine. Talking to other people about their abilities and trying to instill in them a sense of themselves made me happier than anything I've ever done in my life. I had found the keys and I wanted the wings so that I could fly around and unlock the others.
Lots of things have come across my mind in the years since those days, but this one thing stuck. I believe that the people I met along my path, including Mr. Ralston and the awesome youth group leaders we had (as well as incidents, such as the tragic passing of one of the beloved young women who led us) had an enormous difference and made me into who I am today. I was headed in the right direction and found a place where I could shape that, teach others, stand on my soapbox and in the process learn to not be afraid to be the nerdy kid who always wanted to read. The irony is that I am an atheist and instead of finding god in the 18 years I went to church, I found myself.