My mother used to read stories to my younger sister and I every night before bed. We curled up in our bunk bed in the basement, with flannel sheets and grates clasped together on the windows to keep the burglars out. The low-beam headlights of cars and black taxis danced across the ceiling, dipped in London drizzle. I lay awake with my eyes open, and I listened, and I sucked my thumb. I’m left-handed. I sucked my thumb on my right hand until I was 11 years old.
My mother took the middle, while my sister and I lay on either side of her. She paved the way of our imaginations through chapters of Alice in Wonderland, and the entire series of Harry Potter and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember these moments of comfort so vividly. My younger sister also sucked her thumb, but she also liked to tug on my mother’s elbow as she read. My other younger siblings followed suit. To this day, the skin on one of my mother’s elbows is elongated out of shape. Thinking of this makes me smile. In our culture, we’ve learnt that all physical deformities are bad. But when I think of my mother’s elbow, there’s nothing terrible about the remnant of a child seeking comfort, showing love. Or perhaps, to her, it is just another battle scar of motherhood. A battle from which, after having four children in five years, she barely made it out alive.
My mother said that she used to have problems reading aloud, but practicing over bedtime stories with my sister and I helped her through it. Meanwhile, it was made very clear to me at a young age that I was not reading enough. Pembridge Hall, the private elementary school that I went to, had a propensity to mercilessly critique every aspect of our lives. They made us wear red and white checkered dresses and boaters and blazers in the summer, and dark gray pinafores with maroon bobble hats in the winter. And of course they had a very strict idea of what level of literacy all of us should be at, at all times.
My school’s attitude towards reading messed me up from the beginning. I had a reading homework diary, with stickers for every book I read, like we were all playing circus and the teacher was the ringleader. With four young children at home, my mother did not have the bandwidth to sit patiently as I stumbled through Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I had not read enough books. I was behind. I was a teacher-pleasing and parent-pleasing student. My sanity depended on getting 10/10 on every spelling and times table test that was thrown my way. Reading quickly came to be my Achilles heel, that haunted and humiliated me endlessly.
In Year 4, I was placed in a special reading group with Mrs. Daker. I was about 9 years old. They took me and a couple other girls who couldn’t read aloud out of our weekly Geography lesson, and put us in a room with her. Mrs. Daker wasn’t a bad woman, but she could raise her voice in a terrifying way if we were being silly. She was overweight, and she waddled in sandals and a long beige jean skirt and a loose blue t-shirt for most of the year, even during the winter. She had bushy gray hair, laced with the odd white or black wire. I still remember the old Citreon Dolly she drove, with rounded, worn green wheels and a white body. It did not have automatic windows, and it was probably made in the late 1980s, bearing in mind that this was in the early 2000s.
One day, it was my class’s turn to perform during assembly. At one point during the rehearsal, it was my turn to read a paragraph aloud. I tried so hard. I spoke extra loudly, desperate to grasp their attention so they wouldn’t question my abilities. I kept focusing on the next word, and the next, and then the next. I got through it, and managed to keep the illusion of a pace going. I sat back, kind of stunned. Then one girl called out, “Why does Natasha even go to Mrs. Daker? She reads aloud quite well. And Elizabeth told me she’s definitely not dyslexic.” For a brief moment, I felt like I had been getting special oration lessons. I was thrilled. I was still terrified of reading aloud, but part of me could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I could not, would not, be in Mrs. Daker’s special reading group forever. And apparently I was not the only one wondering why I had ended up there in the first place.
From the start, the reading homework diary itself had been a problem. It was a yellow covered paper booklet, with literally hundreds of pages in it i.e. endless room for smiley faces and cake stickers, each to represent a book I had read. How was I going to fill all those pages? Each sticker would represent hours of time invested. I would have to pick shorter, easier books. The challenge seemed insurmountable. Adding one sticker would barely make a dent in the mountain. I would be better off not even trying, watching TV or playing in the garden with my friends after I finished my actual homework. Knowing myself better as an adult now, of course feeling forced to read with no possible way of succeeding was going to turn me right off. My personality doesn’t do well with excess structure. I would have done better with this simple guise: read whatever you want to read, whenever you feel like it. It makes me sad now to think of all the books I might have devoured, if Pembridge Hall hadn’t been set on micro-managing my every last breath. Perhaps that is why, to this day, I’m obsessed with freedom, of the boundless kind.
Still, as an adult, I miss the simple pleasure of having someone read to me. Lately I’ve been thinking that I might read more of my work aloud on the podcast, to create Bedtime Stories for Adults. Maybe, if I read more of my work on my podcast, I could lay my insecurity about reading aloud to rest once and for all. Who knows if it will actually turn into anything, but I want to try to mimic the way my mum read bedtime stories to me. I’ll start off the podcast again by reading this. I hope you enjoy whatever I manage to put together.