Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Lady Who Taught Me to Read

On the night table: Ten Second Staircase (Christopher Fowler)

I’m going to be unabashedly sentimental today. You are warned. 
Now, THIS is a reader's Christmas tree.
Courtesy Meredith Cole

I began learning to read when I was barely 4, which was unusual when I was a kid. When my sister, Barbara, went to kindergarten, she decided to take me with her. Just like that. Don't try to get between my sister and what she's set her mind to do.

She sat me next to her, and helped me with the exercises. She made sure I got a sticker star the same as she did, even when my attempts at printing letters were, well, free-form. At home, she would play teacher and read from her Dick & Jane reader, pointing out the words to me as she went. When I got sick, she'd sit by my bed and read to me. When she got sick, she’d listen to me while I sat with a book in my lap and made up stories because I couldn’t yet read all the words. But I knew there were stories in there, stories better than I was making up, because she'd read them to me. I knew they were there.  I wanted to be able to read them. 

Being able to read well got me through grade school, even though — with my dad in the army — we moved around a lot.

Barbara got me through high school. I firmly believe that. I became almost pathologically shy and found constant excuses to stay home. I never read the literature assignments. While the rest of the class was reading Wuthering Heights or Silas Marner, and I was supposed to be doing the same, I read Mary Stewart, John Steinbeck and Daphne du Maurier. (I was/am also certifiably stubborn.) Because the reading lists never changed year to year, Barbara could — and did — coach me for the tests. 

She loves grammar, and she taught it to me. She enjoyed diagramming sentences. Predicate nouns, adverbial clauses, genitive case, she taught them to me. She remembers that I wrote papers for her. I recall that I'd give her a couple of ideas, maybe an opening sentence. Meanwhile, I only passed English because of her. I was too busy reading books that weren't on the reading lists.

In a way, she’s responsible for my being published. An editor at McGraw-Hill was looking for someone to proofread an English-as-a-second-language project, to make sure there were no mistakes in the lessons.  She knew my sister through their church, and knew she was a grammar nut — uh, expert — and meticulous. Barbara was too busy at the time, running a theater company in New York City, and suggested Louise contact me, because she said I was almost as big an — uh — expert as her. I'd been laid off from my radio DJ job and had realized that, at my age, if I were going to stay in  New York, I'd have to find another line of work. I did. From McGraw-Hill, I went to another job, full time, as a copyeditor, then an editor, and that is where I met a woman who introduced me to my first agent. So, there you go.

Barbara is a drama teacher. She lives in what I consider my hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, where my family settled when my father retired from the army when I was 12. I lived there till I finished college.

My sister and brother-in-law, David (yes, we both married Davids), returned to Clarksville in the mid-1990s from New York City. They went back to care for my parents. My father had advanced Parkinson’s and my mom was trying to care for him on her own. 

When my father died, in 1996, they stayed on, to be with her. They made new lives for themselves. She as a teacher, he as a minister. Gradually my mother developed dementia, but was able to live on her own in her own house. Because of them.

So today, I’d like to say thank you to my brother-in-law. And especially to my sister.

The lady who taught me to read.

Photo credit: Shane Martin

Sheila York
Copyright 2013


  1. Sheila, what a lovely tribute - and fascinating bio of a child who was such a miracle in your life! How lucky you have been - I always wanted a sister... tjs

  2. Sheila, I always wanted a sister too. I had a brother at birth. My mother gave me two more brothers. My grandmother was on of three sisters, but my mother had only brothers--six of them. MY daughter is an only, so my granddaughters are the first sisters in the family in four generations. Your story is of the sister I wanted. Blessings on you both.

  3. Sisters are the best. I only wish I were as much use to my sister as she was to me. I hear stories about people like Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine and I think, what fools they were.

  4. My sister is having trouble with getting her comment to show up here. So she has asked me to post her comment. We might end up with a duplicate, but here goes: My sister says: "Wow. And I remember that YOU did all the reading and told me the plots of all the novels. You also were the first to memorize "High Flight" and perform it dramatically. I copied you. Performed it dramatically and got cast in The Mouse that Roared, which began a 50-year love affair with theatre!! YOU are solely responsible for leading me to the river to drink! Ha! What a pair we are! Who knew??!?"

  5. Oh, "The Mouse That Roared!" Be still my heart.
    So I'm an only child, but have enormous admiration for anyone who teaches anyone else to read or to love books. It's such a gift!
    Oh, and by the way, I'm a huge Christopher Fowler fan. For a while I was giving a copy of "Full Dark House" to any mystery lover I knew

  6. Your post made me smile, as I am the oldest sister in my family and remember reading and sharing what I learned with the rest. Nothing better than a sister.