Mrs. Zxy and Jane Maul Mr. Bill

Mr. BillThe headline sounds like something ripped from a check stand sleaze magazine except that it’s true. It’s also a common tale for anyone who has kids. Our hero, and victim, is Bill, my youngest kid. Today, he is an avid reader and published writer. But, it wasn’t always so. There was a time when everything went sideways.

Like most neo-adolescents, Bill was not fond of reading. In fact, he completely avoided it. I had seen this problem come and go with my other kids, so I wasn’t too concerned, at first. Many of these phases tend to work themselves out. Mostly, I didn’t want to force him into a pastime that I knew he disliked. I’ve never appreciated people telling me what to do so I assume others, including Bill, usually feel the same way.

Moving into his first year of High School, Bill drew a teacher, Mrs. Zxy, whose job it was to get him reading. As I recall, the class was about 25 strong, all new to High School, all new to each other, and probably most not interested in reading. No one would envy Mrs. Zxy’s job. I assumed she understood the perils of her role and was prepared to meet them head on.

Now, this teacher’s answer to a predictable reluctance to read was to throw Jane Austen at her class. Since our educational system is based on uniformity and collective adherence, this was a time-honored way of accomplishing the task. Throw out a classic, like Austen, and they will all become avid readers. The future would be secured. The predictable protocol would continue to reign as education king.

Talk about wrong-headed!

Portrait of Jane Austen

What in this universe of swamp gas would a neo-adolescent male find intriguing about Jane Austen? Sure, she was a literary luminary of the first order. Certainly, she was a classic author. But, where was the relevance? Mrs. Zxy may have been an expert in the Classics. Maybe. But she was older, mature, her education completed, her personal story line well into the process of being written. She was as far removed from adolescence as Mr. Scrooge, or so it probably seemed to her charges. If Mrs. Zxy would have asked, I would have been more than happy to explain to her that the Classics is not the starting gate for future readers. It’s more like the 1/3 mile post.

Anyway, I learned about the problem in the usual way, by talking with Bill. There he was, stuck with Jane Austen and trying very hard to please Mrs. Zxy. Bleak. We both knew that he had no choice but to carry on, to struggle through the Classics no matter his level of disinterest. I was secretly concerned about something else. Would this episode destroy his interest in reading, now and forever? It wasn’t what I wanted for the kid.

I thrashed around a bit, trying to come up with something innovative and easy to swallow. More pressure was certainly not the answer. I knew that the only way to engender a passion for reading was to get his attention, grab it outright, and never let go. But it wasn’t something I could do alone.

Carlos Castenada on Peyote. AKA, Why I Don't H...

At about the same time, the Carlos Castaneda mythos was making the rounds to a new generation. I had his first three books and enjoyed each. I devised a plan to just be seen around our house with the book in hand, or lying nearby. At some point, I banked on the assumption that Bill would show some interest. That would be my big chance.

He did, and he began reading. Bill liked Castaneda’s first book. He read it right through and moved on to subsequent Don Jan tales. Easy. He became a reader and, in later years, a talented writer. He survived Jane Austen and Mrs. Zxy. Like him or not, Castaneda became somewhat of a helper-hero in our family, one of those unexpected people whose work pushes you in a new direction.

And the moral? Two, really. The first is a lingering distaste for the uniformity of our educational system. But, that’s a soapbox topic and I won’t add to the boredom. The second moral is far more important. Readers need to be captivated, to become ensnared and moved, to live as participants in the story line. Failing that, boredom quickly sets in. For a young adolescent male, Jane Austen will never be the trick pony. Mrs. Zxy should have known that. Still, I don’t blame her too much. We need to take a big role in how our kids move through life. In the end, the job is ours.

Want your kids to read? Find out what moves them, what carries them through the pages. That’s how to create a reader. If you can help them read, you can help them write. The rest they will do for themselves.