Thursday, August 16, 2007

A 20-Year Journey

O the Raggedy Man! He works fer Pa;
An' he's the goodest man ever you saw!
He comes to our house every day,
An' waters the horses, an' feeds 'em hay;
An' he opens the shed -- an' we all ist laugh
When he drives out our little old wobble-ly calf;
An' nen -- ef our hired girl says he can --
He milks the cow fer 'Lizabuth Ann. --
Ain't he a' awful good Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
--James Whitcomb Riley, “The Raggedy Man”

“It’s about diversity,” my dad would say as he closed the giant book of Children’s Literature. Reading this poem often was one of my father’s several attempts to keep my brother and I thinking about a world bigger than the one children create in their heads. Though my parents taught us life’s lessons through conversation, television, and the computer, the avenue used most often for dialogue was my father reading aloud from a book nearly every night of my childhood.

The giant book of Children’s Literature had stories and poems that had deeper meaning than the R.L. Stine books I checked out from the library. When my father read, he had the full attention of the whole family, that is, until my mother ultimately fell asleep, a tradition she carries on to this day. I realized later that my father came from a family of readers, of educators. I knew that the Highfills were first and foremost teachers, but their profession extended into the home. My granddaddy read from the gospel every Christmas, perhaps the only time I ever heard the bible read. When I was in grade school, I lived too far away to visit my grandparents, so my grandmother recorded herself reading stories so that I’d have something to listen to at bedtime.

As my brother and I grew older, my parents’ reading choices matured with us. “Watership Down” was the first true chapter book I remember. On my own, I would have thought that the entertaining novel was just a cute story about a bunch of rabbits. My father explained the social and economic implications behind the exciting humor and eloquence of the story.

We went on to read Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” and Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Books such as “Sounder” and a couple of John Steinbeck’s shorter stories were added to our repertoire. One time, we read “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and each family member read a character or two. And then came Harry Potter.

I was worried I wouldn’t like Harry Potter. I didn’t get into the craze at first, being rebellious and “different”. I was very skeptical to add that book to the ranks, when so far we had read Shakespeare and Mark Twain…could some woman from England really meet my family’s standards? I don’t even like fantasy or science fiction. Surely this idea was way off the mark.

I was wrong from the very beginning; from the first chapter I knew I was so wrong. Though we started reading Potter when I was in high school, I felt like a young child again. I had never felt so enthralled, so mesmerized by a book, though our previous reading experiences always left me wanting more. We read the first two books in the series consecutively, before the third was released. I gladly joined Pottermania. The rest of my family fell just as hard as I did.

When the third book was released, I was in 10th grade. By this point the entire muggle world was taken over by a new obsession—reading. When I went to the midnight release party at Barnes & Noble, I realized the impact that these books had on children and adults everywhere. People were reading, and for once, children put aside video games and cartoons to pick up a book. My father read aloud as my brother and I were on the edge of our seats, along with my mother before she fell asleep.

We went to the midnight releases for books four and five, and every time my father had to read longer and faster as our interest grew more intense. There were nights we stayed up until the early morning, listening to the very end of each book. Crying and laughing, and of course discussing. By the time book six rolled around, I’m sure my father welcomed a break. Though we were disappointed, my brother was away in California and I was back at college in the fall. My brother suggested we read it over the phone, but in the end, I bought two copies and my brother bought his own and for the first time in Potter history, we read to ourselves.

With every book came more media attention and spoilers were beginning to be published on CNN the day after the release. I was worried about book seven. Could we really take the time to listen to the book and finish before we accidentally heard the end? What horror if after so many years of dedication we caught the final pages in a careless comment on the Today Show. At this point, my brother and I were both in our 20s, and my whole family was working. Did we have enough time to sit down like we had for the past 20 years and read a book?

Many of you have heard about our Harry Potter/Bill Clinton vacation. It was my mom’s idea to vacation with the specific goal of reading Harry Potter. We knew that if we stayed at home, even if we took off work, there would be too many distractions for us to really concentrate. If we were going to succeed, and finish the series the same way we started it, we needed to think out a plan, a book seven-intense plan.

We were able to read over half of the book in our few days in Little Rock, mostly in the car to and from. We blocked out all news and conversation for several days after our vacation and ended up finishing almost a week, to the minute, after the book was purchased. My dad read for six hours that Friday night.

I have never been prouder of my family than in the moment that my father closed the last book. Though it was never mentioned, we all knew that this was likely our last book together. It was hard to say goodbye to the Harry Potter series, but what was even more difficult, was saying goodbye to the endless hours I spent listening to my father’s amazing voice. When I review the list of things we have read over the years, dating from Shakespeare’s England to Rowling’s England, I know that a huge part of who I have become is etched in memories on the pages of those books. I am so blessed to have been born into a family that valued literature, but I am more blessed to have a family that values being a family. I hope that I can carry on this tradition with my own children, not only reading aloud, but creating an environment full of imagination and diversity.


Beth said...

yay for reading! and for Harry Potter! love ya!


AAGlenn said...

I agree!
I come from a family that read, and read out loud, but NOT while traveling. We sang then!

I haven't finished the last Harry Potter. I am about half way through, as it is my bedtime reading as I have been busy editing during the day.
Alice Ann