I remember the first time I told my daughter a bedtime story. She was a little over two and not in the mood to sleep one night. Jungle Book was the ideal story since she loved animals. Her curiosity was piqued as I narrated the adventures of Mowgli. When I got to Sher Khan and “roared”, she burrowed closer to my wife but asked me to continue when I stopped. She was elated when Mowgli and Baloo won the day. The next night, she wanted to hear about “Mowgi” again. And the night after that. Thus began a tradition that lasted for the next 3 years or so.
Fortunately for me (and her), we discovered the children’s section at our local library. We would return laden with 20 to 30 books, all beautifully illustrated with large font. I started with a book each night, but my daughter was a wily negotiator and soon, I was up to reading aloud 4 books each night. This was a ritual that could not be skipped no matter how late at night it was or how tired we were.
Some favorites had to be reread and that meant even though she could not read, I could not skip any paragraphs. A young mind is like a sponge and she would memorize the stories as I read them to her. We carried on with the animal theme. Babar the Elephant was an early favorite. Then there was a story about a Hippo called Philomena. The story included the names of all her extended family and I had to read each name, if I skipped any, it was like the proverbial snake in the game of snake and ladders, she would pounce on me and I would have to start at the beginning of the paragraph!
As she grew older, we graduated to Bernstein Bears and Amelia Bedelia. Amelia Bedelia was a young girl who would misunderstand her employer’s instructions and would end up messing things up. Silly adventures of a young girl and my daughter loved them. The stories were not just limited to bedtime. If we were out, say on a long drive, she would ask me to narrate a story. I came up with this fictitious zoo called the “The Kalamazoo Zoo”. The zookeepers were obviously lax since the animals always escaped. The harried officials would of course reach out to the famous detective who was ensconced in her car seat behind me, listening wide eyed. She would always rise to the occasion, tricking the various animals in ingenious ways and getting them back to the zoo. She would be suitably rewarded and so would I, with a chuckle of delight and cries of “One more, one more!”.
My wife has a T shirt with a meme that says “I was born intelligent but education ruined me”. I wonder if there is some truth to that statement (not in regard to my wife!). My wife had just started to teach my daughter how to count. We had a book that taught children to count from 1 to 10, each page featuring animals or birds. One night, I decided to test my daughter and opened a random page and asked my daughter to tell me the number of ducklings on that page. I had mentally counted 7 ducklings in the pond. My daughter studied the picture and replied 8. I asked her to check again and she replied 8. “Are you sure?”, I asked. “Count carefully again and pay attention this time!”. She replied 8. Shaking my head, I started counting and when I reached 7, I looked at her accusingly. She coolly pointed to the duckling amongst the reeds, making its way to the pond. Education had certainly ruined me, I had lost my powers of observation!
As my daughter started to read, I started buying her books that I had read in my childhood. Brer Rabbit and lots of other Enid Blyton stories including the Secret Seven and Famous Five series. Books that I would have loved to have owned as a child but never did. I was reliving a part of my childhood vicariously through her. We also subscribed to the “Disney’s Wonderful World of Reading” series. Hardbound books with lovely illustrations showed up periodically much to my daughter’s (and my) delight. These books, along with the Disney movies, proved to be a formidable combination. It wasn’t uncommon to see my daughter reenacting scenes from the movies as she played by herself. And then imperceptibly, like a fledgling that is learning to fly, takes wings and flies away confidently, she stopped asking me to read stories to her. Magic Tree House was perhaps the first series that she read by herself and before I knew it, she had graduated to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.
When our son was born, I imagined that I would be reading all those books again. I looked forward to reading Brer Rabbit stories to him, just as my brother had read them to me when I was a young boy and just as I had read those stories to my daughter. Things did not really turn out the way I had envisioned. As a special needs child, books and stories did not hold his attention. He slept to the lullabies of his nursery rhymes. He was drawn to toys that were musical in nature. He needed auditory simulation. If a toy did not make noise, he banged it on the floor or the wall to produce noise.
As he grew older, we realized that he did not indulge in pretend play. A toy car did not lead him on fun adventures in the landscape of his mind. It served either as a toy to be mouthed or banged against the floor. Books were literally food for thought, he chewed on them. His sensory needs were and are still, different. A couple of years ago, his speech therapist introduced him to an iPad with an icon based app that translates his selections to words. She, along with the rest of the admirable staff at his school, have been working with him patiently over the last couple of years. He took to it like a fish to water and we started having basic conversations with him.
He loves to wash his hands (and play in water) and rolls up his sleeve in anticipation whenever he sees a faucet. A month or so ago, we noticed that he kept rolling up his sleeves at all times of the day but did not want to wash his hands when we led him to the sink. Finally, my wife asked him to use his iPad and tell us what he was trying to say. He did – “I want to go to the mall” and “Eat Pasta”. Why the rolling up of the sleeves though? Of course, the food court had a restroom adjacent to the Pasta place where he always washed his hands! That was his way of telling us that he wanted to go to the mall.
So about three weeks ago, we took him to the mall. His anticipation rose as we neared the food court. He frantically started rolling up his sleeves. I took him into the restroom and as I turned on the faucet, he squealed with joy. I don’t think there has ever been a lottery winner who was as happy as he was at that moment. After we had dried his hands and he had eaten at the food court, I took him back for another round of hand washing.
Hardly as we had sat in the car, he started rolling up his sleeves again! “No way”, we told him, “we were just at the mall”. He continued to point to his sleeve at night before he went to bed, first thing in the morning when he woke up and we kept telling him patiently that the mall was closed and we would visit it over the weekend. Last week, as we were relaxing in our living room, he walked up to me and pointed at his sleeve again. “Oh no, not the mall again!” I said. However, on a whim, I started describing our trip to the mall. He snuggled up to me with a distant look in his eyes and a slight smile on his face. As I continued my story of entering the food court and walking towards the restroom, his sense of anticipation increased and his smile broadened. There was a glint in his eye and he listened with rapt attention. When I got to the part about turning on the faucet, he squealed with delight, rolled up his sleeve and started clapping his hands! We finally got it. He wanted us to tell him the story of his trip to the mall.