Five Little Pumpkins
Almost a decade ago I first began the journey of teaching my children how to read. Nine years later I have a twelve-year-old daughter that reads above the level of a college sophomore, and an eight-year-old son whose ability to read is almost as impressive. However, as amazing as they both are, it was a struggle to get to where we are now. To explain what we went through I will have to start at the beginning.
Lilly, my daughter, was four-years-old and it was February in Missouri. The weather there was always unpredictable. Some days could be mild, and others as harsh as living 500 miles north. This particular day we woke up to no power, no running water, and no phone service. I looked outside and there was at least three inches of ice blanketing the world. The ancient oak tree in my front yard had fallen taking out the power lines, the road, and my neighbor’s car. The root-ball of the tree was twice as high as my house and completely blocked my driveway. Not that it mattered much; my car was almost as old as the tree and running on four bald tires.
We lived in a very small town, over an hour from my family and friends. I was eight months pregnant and my husband had left us to find himself a half-a-dozen states away. The power had been out most of the night, and our heat was electrical, so it was getting cold fast. We had two cats and I gathered them up, along with every blanket, sheet and pillow I could find in the house and built a shelter for us in the middle of the living room. At first I just focused on feeding Lilly breakfast, and making sure we were warm, but then I realized we were going to be there for awhile and I would need some way to entertain her.
Lilly never showed the same interest as other toddlers did in toys. She would play with them some, but for the most part she would stare at them, or talk to them, or sing to them. Her doctor had diagnosed her with mild autism (which later we found out wasn’t the case) and said that she would never be completely “normal”. She seemed her most content when left alone with her imagination. As an infant she hardly ever cried and would sing to me in her made up baby words every morning when I got her out of her crib.
Since toys weren’t going to occupy her, and I didn’t have much space for her to move around in inside our makeshift tent, I decided to grab a stack of children’s books off the shelf that my mother had given me. I started by reading to her, but I kept having to try and get her attention. When I did get her to look at me, her expression wasn’t with interest in what I was saying. It almost seemed like a look of concern; as if she was trying to figure out if I had lost my mind.
I had read to her before, but it was more of a “look at the pretty pictures” type of reading, then me trying to convey a story. Since we seemed to have all the time in the world, I had decided to focus on making her focus on me. So far in her life I hadn’t been able to do it. I would sing to her and she would go into her own little world. I would talk to her and she would look right through me. She would respond with some words, and some actions, but never directly. She was always well-behaved, but not because I told her “no” or even showed her how to behave. She was just naturally calm. She seemed to inherently know what I expected of her.
I read three or four books, and was about to give up when all of a sudden she grabbed one of the books on my lap. It was a Halloween themed book called “Five Little Pumpkins”. My mother had just given it to me and I believe it was just something she had picked up at a yard sale for a dime. Lilly’s eyes lit up. The pumpkins on the cover had jack-o-lantern faces, and she stared into them as if she was trying to read their souls. I was afraid to open the cover. Would she lose interest if I read the words inside? After a few minutes, I decided to read the first page. To my surprise, she seemed to listen intently. It almost seemed as if she was focusing not just on the book, but on me. I read the next page, and the next, all the way to the end. Then I heard it: “Again Mama”. My eyes filled with tears and I immediately started the book again. She seemed even more engrossed the second time through, and then I realized something. She was focusing on me. She was looking at the book, and then into my eyes; at the book, and again into my eyes. It was the first real connection that I had made with her, and from that moment on it was as if the wall between her and the rest of the world hadn’t fell necessarily, but had broken just enough for there to be a window for her to reach through.
We spent three days without heat, and the last without much to eat or drink, but I wouldn’t have traded what I was given that day for a luxury condo on a sunny island. My daughter had found me, and from that day on we never lost each other. Five Little Pumpkins was the first book I read to her brother after he was born, and first book that they both learned how to read on their own. (Although my mother says it’s because they had already memorized all of the words.) I still have it. The edges are worn, the pages are smudged, and the binding is held together by yellow rubber ducky duct tape that my daughter once called “book stitches”. Someday I will read it to my grandchildren, and tell them how their mother found our world.
From Instructor Mahaffey:
Each semester, I assign my English 101 students a Literacy Narrative, and every single time I sit down to grade, I come across stories from students that blow my mind, make me laugh, humble me, inspire me, and even sometimes make me cry. Whitney’s narrative did a little of all that.
A Literacy Narrative is meant to showcase a student’s experience with literacy at some point in their lifetime. Students can choose to write about a number of different topics–learning to read or write as little children; exploring ways they read or wrote throughout their elementary and secondary educations; experiences with proficiency testing or college applications; even learning how to read and/or write music. Whitney chose a different path, though. She decided to show a personal connection she has with writing and her daughter, which takes guts because she is trusting her reader with something that literally transformed her relationship with her daughter. Her writing shows that college essays can go beyond the academic, stuffy voice that students so often think they have to mimic, and instead can be personal and full of storytelling magic we usually like so much. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!