June 23, 2018
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My pursuit of literacy, love of books: pirates, shipwrecks and all

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Todd Nelson, principal of Brooksville Elementary School
By Todd R. Nelson, Special to the BDN

One look at the pirate on the cover — his crimson bandanna, cutlass, wide belt — and I felt all the old feelings. I always judge a book by its cover, and this was my very first book, rediscovered by chance during a July visit to an out-of-the-way used book store. “Look Out for Pirates!” and I had been separated for lo these 40-something years, but we were finally being reunited. It’s an amazing feeling — my “Rosebud” experience.

I remember our last encounter with crystal clarity. After my first day in first grade at Lincolnwood Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois, I had come home, burst through the front door and went straight to the living-room bookshelf.

“Mom! I can read now,” I exclaimed.

I pulled out “Look Out for Pirates!” crouched on the floor and slowly turned the pages, looking at all the familiar illustrations, especially the opening line: “It was a dark night.” Captain Jim was saving the town’s gold from the pirates, sailing it to safety under cover of darkness. But a pirate was watching. He signaled his no-good pirate gang, and they followed Captain Jim in hot pursuit. Yup, I was ready to do this by myself. I, too, was in hot pursuit — of reading.

The words were no more comprehensible to me that afternoon than they had been that morning, when I read my favorite book before going to school. But as of the end of the first day of first grade I was simply confident the time to read had come. So read I would.

What I actually was doing had a type of authentic literacy to it, if not actual verbal understanding. Turning the pages in our childhood books, imitating the flow of the gaze from top to bottom of the page, looking at thousands of letters and words before knowing their meaning but knowing they have meaning — this is the path toward literacy and fluency.

In later grades, I would be transformed by the pathos and drama of plot, the nuances of word choice and the ordered experience of the sentence and paragraph. However, in first grade it was enough to simply feel the power of having the appearance of reading.

Later, I would understand the work of my parents, both writers, and choose English as my undergraduate major in college. For now, I could take simple pleasure in imitation of what I saw the grown-ups doing. I had joined the readers’ club.

At home I reread my recovered reading treasure with indescribable joy. I was transported, shipwrecked again on the tropical island with Captain Jim and his crew — repairing the schooner’s staved-in starboard bow, diving to retrieve the chest of gold lost overboard, bombarding the pirate deckhands with hornet nests and even towing their boat away from them.

“Find work and fun there on the land,” benevolent Captain Jim said. “Your pirate days are over.”

What epic prose! Other days I sided with the pirates.

Even the nefarious pirates had a happy ending — that island would be a great place to be marooned. I was under the sway once more of Iris Vinton’s simple prose, repetitive lexicon and the tantalizing choice: pirate or heroic merchant mariner? Easy. Wouldn’t you rather dress in the Jolly Roger, crimson sashes, black bandoliers and earrings? And so, my life as a pirate-English-major-educator began. “Look Out for Pirates!” embraces all the themes of my intervening years.

You understand, right? Sometimes we are saving the town; sometimes we are marauding pirates. And best of all, sometimes we are transported away from Lincolnwood Elementary School. I think of the students at my school, who are in the midst of experiencing a Leapin’ Literacy program to energize their summer reading and love of books.

You know it’s true because it’s your story, too. Our recollections of the beginning of literacy and our first books are usually powerful, resonant and as deeply embedded in memory as a whiff of fresh-baked cookies redolent of Grandma’s house. The power of reading aloud; the power of being read to; the power of suggesting that words matter; the power of the ordered, linear experience of visual and verbal narrative is intellectual and emotional discovery itself.

And with that recollection we very often recall the voice of a teacher or parent and a favorite opening line: “Once upon a time… ” “The Night Max wore his wolf suit…” “It was a dark and stormy night.” All are true stories.

Whose voice are you? Consider the next generation of readers who are sitting and growing within earshot of our reading voices. My school is a book-loving place, with high aspiration toward multiple literacies and deep appreciation of characters, stories and the narrative arc of a good drawing. I love to follow the path through phonics and invented spelling to more and more complex syntax and word choice, the levels of generality and detailed texture being mentored in young story writers — the voices of new pirates and sea captains. My own pirate days are far from over.

“Mom! Dad! I can read now.” Surely this story is playing out in more than a few of our school homes, as well as the one where parents reunite with their own favorite texts of childhood as they read aloud to a new generation before bedtime.

So —

Chance discovery of a used bookstore: wonderful.

Seeing the cherished childhood cover on the top shelf: treasure found.

Paying $39 for a book that cost $1.50 in 1960: well worth it, if a little steep.

Reunited at last with my Ur text: solid gold.

Remembering my inner child acquiring the power of literacy: priceless.

Todd R. Nelson is principal at Brooksville Elementary School in Brooksville.


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