Nunzilla’s School of Reading Comprehension

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I read very slowly.

When I was in the second grade at St. Francis de Sales School in Newark, Ohio, our English teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth, required that we read aloud on Mondays and Fridays. Coming from a hard-core blue-collar background, reading was not something that was encouraged in the Braunbeck household. Not that my parents discouraged it, but because both of them worked long hours at hellish factory jobs, they were either too tired or too busy with things like bills and home repairs to find time to read much. Neither of them completed high school, and neither of them ran in social circles where “intellectual” pursuits such as reading were the norm.

No, I’m not blaming them, far from it; Mom would always buy me a book if I found one I wanted, and Dad was more than happy to read to or with me. (Aside: Mom was a big Mickey Spillane fan, and read his books whenever she could, but the only two books I ever saw her re-read were Blatty’s The Exorcist and F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, which she thought was “… one of the best books I’ve ever read. I hope he writes another one.”)

Okay, so I’m sitting there in English class one Friday, and we’re taking turns reading paragraphs from some book — I wish to hell I could remember its name — about this kid named Johnny who works odd jobs so he can earn money to go to the movies because he likes to imagine that he’s the cowboy hero or brave fighter pilot or smart detective.

Gets to be my turn, and I’m reading along — slower than the other kids, but smoothly, nonetheless — when I encounter a word I’d often heard but had never actually seen in print before: “aisle.”

I stopped, stared at the word, and tried to figure out how to pronounce it.

Sister Mary Elizabeth made quite a show out of my inability to read this word aloud, so finally, embarrassed beyond belief, I gave it a try.

What I said was something akin to “i-sell.”

Everyone laughed. Sister Mary Elizabeth told me to try it again.

I-sell. Again.

I couldn’t figure out any other way to pronounce it.

Sister then pulled several other books from the shelf and opened them to selected pages, thrust them under my nose, and ordered me to read about twenty-five different words at her random choosing, all of which I’d heard, none of which I had ever seen in print before, among them “redundant”, “envelope”, “digestion”, “automatic”, and — my personal favorite to this day — “repetitive”.

I missed every last one of them.

And everyone got a dandy guffaw out of that.

Most of the kids who attended St. Francis came from fairly well-to-do families, families who financially contributed heavily to both the church and school, who held positions on the school board or church board, and who got to wear dresses and ties to their jobs and sit behind desks.

I was one of a small handful of kids who came from, well … not-so well-to-do families, and there was a marked difference in the way we were treated, both by our fellow students and the teachers. If one of the rich students was having difficulties, well, then, hire a tutor, arrange for special sessions with teachers after school, cut them as much slack as possible.

But if one of the poorer students was having trouble … tough shit. Their families were barely making the quarterly tuition payments, so it wasn’t worth anyone’s time to give them any extra help.

Three days a week, I was provided with a free lunch because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for an entire week’s worth. Somehow, Sister Mary Elizabeth managed to work that into her scolding of me in front of the class that day, as well as several observations about the limited selection options available to me for my wardrobe.

“Go sit out in the hall, you’re holding everyone else back, you dumb-bunny.”

Dumb-bunny. Never forgot that one.

So I went out into the hall and sat there.

Which is how I came to find myself transferred to the “special” English class the following Monday.

Here is what the “special” English class consisted of:

Some assistant coach (or Darrell Sheets, the marvelous, kind man who was the school’s janitor) sat at a table in the cafeteria while the rest — there were five of us — were seated at another table. On this table was a stack of childrens’ books. Twenty of them, in fact. I remember this because these books never changed. Ever.

These were books written for children at the pre-school/kindergarten level.

This is Dick. This is his sister, Jane. Dick and Jane are playing with their Dog, Spot. “Run, Spot, run!” See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.

Goddamn page-turners were these books.

From Grade 2 until Grade 5 that is how I spent my English classes; down in the cafeteria, sitting at a table with four other “special” students, reading the same twenty books over and over. (We were not allowed to bring our own books, we had to read only those that were deemed to be “within” our “ranges of comprehension.” At least at the beginning of every year they gave us twenty different books than the year before. Our big exam was to read two of them aloud at the end of the year.)

As a result of this, and the lack of reading time/assistance at home, I read at a first-grade level until the sixth grade. Even then, I was way behind the other kids. (The “special” program had been 86’d at the end of my fifth grade year because they could no longer find assistant coaches or assistant janitors who were willing to baby-sit us.)

I somehow managed to bluff my way through sixth grade English — I squeaked by with a “C” — but even that summer, I found that I was still having trouble reading books that, by all accounts, I should have been able to breeze through four years ago.

I was given a reading comprehension test at the start of my seventh grade year.

I was reading at a third-grade level … and just barely at that.

But I got lucky. My English teacher that year was a terrific guy named David Kessler who had been made aware of my “learning disability” and who, even though he wasn’t allowed to give me any extra help either in or outside of class, did provide me with books designed to help me read better. I guarded these books as if they were my life savings. Whenever either of them could, Mom and Dad helped me, or one of the neighbors if I offered to cut their grass. But mostly I had to do it on my own.

By the time I left the Catholic School system at the end of my eighth grade year, I was reading at the fifth-grade level.

For me, it was a personal triumph.

I haven’t bothered getting myself tested in decades, because whatever level I’m reading at right now is the level I will read at until I take the Dirt Nap.

But there remain times ….

There were several sections in Dan Simmons’s brilliant The Hollow Man that I had to re-read more than once before fully understanding what I was reading. As much as I admire and enjoy the work of Joe Haldeman, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe, there are times while reading them that I feel genuinely stupid, as if I’m standing there in front of Sister and the class trying to decipher “aisle” once again.

It took me three days to read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a short novel that many people read in three hours.

To this day, I remain angry about that.

To this day, I still have trouble reading at times, and always will, and that has caused some measure of enjoyment to be subtracted from my life, and that saddens me whenever I think about it for too long, because the ability to read is one of the most precious gifts we possess.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: