Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Chapter Time

I tiptoe across the floor of my room, trying to force the sound of my footsteps into the plush white carpet. Swinging the door open carefully, so as not to hit the side of the crib, I glance down and see tufts of blonde hair peeking out from under fleece Mickey Mouse blankets. Gentle snores grumble through a snotty nose. Closing the door behind me, I chuckle at the thought that not many college seniors share their room with a toddler... especially when the child is not their own. I step into the hall and overhear Dad's playful call in the girls' room: “Alright! Who's ready for Chapter Time!” Giggling, the two girls jump into their beds and Mom pulls the blankets up around their chubby cheeks as Dad settles back with a picture book. Heading downstairs to work on homework, I smile as the ever-familiar deep hum of his voice follows me down.

Growing up, “Chapter Time” was family time. I have to admit, this was a clever move on my parents' part. They had been struggling to make us stay in bed at night, and realized that we settled down much better if they read to us before we fell asleep. What started as a toddler anecdote became family tradition. Every night, without fail, my brothers and I would line up on my parents' bed and Dad would read us a single chapter. Series after series, book after book: Chronicles of Narnia, the Light of Eidon, the Hobbit. Tales of adventure and love, of heroes that would go to the ends of the earth (or another world) to ensure that truth and light prevails. This was always the favorite part of my day. Even Dad's business trips couldn't stop us! He would pack the current book in his suitcase, and we would huddle around the speakerphone at night and listen to his familiar—yet slightly more metallic—voice. I knew that voice by heart. I would snuggle up next to him, his “Girl Squirrel,” and lay my head on his chest. As he spoke, I could hear the words as much through the air as through his being, the beat of his heart keeping pace. When not snuggled up, my father and I even worked out an elaborate foot-massage system: we would sit with our feet aiming at each other and rub the other person's feet while he read. Now that seems an unusual memory. However, I have always loved foot rubs.

Around the age of thirteen or fourteen, I found myself “maturing”—Chapter Time was losing its luster. I came to the decision that I was far too old to still have my Dad to read to me, so the night came that I ignored my dad's call to join. Sitting proudly alone in my room, I heard my father and brothers together, the stories continuing as they always would. Proud and sulking... as much as I wanted to grow up, I didn't want to be left out.

Not long after, Chapter Time slowly slipped out of the family routine.

As a fruit from being read to, I became an avid reader. I was taught an appreciation for the written word at a young age. A very young age. Competitive and stubborn by nature, I insisted that my mother teach me to read at three years old, only because she had begun teaching my 6-year-old brother. (Just as an aside: we also graduated with our Associate's at the same time. I never grew out of the competitiveness.) Later on, as homeschooled daughter of a writer, my education was severely lacking in the areas of math and science, but was rich in novels. I read every copy of Nancy Drew in our local library, and even tried to start my own Babysitter's Club named “Baby Blues,” which for some reason never took off. While my friends were starting to get in trouble for kissing boys and watching R-rated movies, I got in trouble for sneaking flashlights and reading until the wee hours of the morning. I had the capacity to read my mom's 450-page World War II novel, From Dust and Ashes, in one sitting, and always hungered for more. I knew the cover of every book on each of the five bookshelves in our house, and realized that the old saying is beyond wrong, because you CAN judge a book by its cover. Or, at least I did. If the cover didn't catch my eye—if I didn't feel a glimmer of excitement from holding the weight of it in my hands—I would stuff it right back on the shelf and never give it a second glance.

Though my summer reading list was pages long, I realized that I had somehow avoided reading the “classics.” To Kill a Mockingbird still sits in a pile under my bed, never read more than two pages deep. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite movie, but I've never read a written word of Jane Austen. My Kindle library is growing long with the list of traditional books, but I have yet to read them. Free Kindle books made it easy to stock up on traditional titles. I considered feeling guilty about it for a while, until I recently heard a classmate mention that she had to read the Scarlet Letter seven times during her high school career. I felt so grateful for the variety and freedom I held in pursuing any book I so desired. Maybe this educational independence has stuck with me more than I know, as I have continued to avoid the expected career path and am majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies. I could choose what I wanted to read, now I can choose what I want to study.

My whole family is undergoing an adjustment period right now. My parents recently acquired a 2-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl from the foster care system. Once you add them to my 18-year old brother, myself, and our already-adopted 2-year-old sister, the number of “kids” living at home now amounts to five. While ever-unorganized chaos reigns in my home, and I have discovered that doing homework has become a nearly-impossible task, I feel so blessed to know that the fountain of love pouring out of my parents is nowhere close to dry. More mouths to feed, more clothes to clean.

More hearts to love,
          more books to read.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I believe in you.

On our last day of class, my professor pulls out the Polar Express and begins to read to us. A class filled with upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, some might think this strange. However, this was a class focused on writing for children and adolescents, so none of us are surprised. A quaint story, she reads through to the end, pausing periodically to point out different aspects of the childrens-book format that we had learned. She reaches the end of the book, and the main character has received a bell from Santa's sleigh for Christmas only to discover that only those who believe in Santa can hear it ring:

"At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe."

Her last words hang in the air as she puts the book down and pulls out a small plastic bag filled with bells. One by one, she goes to each student in the room and hands us a small bell. They are larger than cranberries--silver ones, gold ones, one bell for each one. As she hands us our bells, she says, "I want to give each of you a bell. Because I believe in you. Not just as writers, but as individuals. When you see that bell, remember that somebody believes in you."

The red-headed girl sitting across from me bursts into tears, and I know that mine is not the only damp eye. Our class is dismissed for the semester. We all have other places to go, other classes and finals to attend... yet we linger. And one by one, we give her a hug and walk out the door. Some of us bearing gifts for our favorite professor, some only carrying thankful hearts. As the room clears out, and I tuck my bell safe in my pocket and follow.

When I arrived home that evening, I pull a small silver chain out of my jewelry box and thread it through the top of the bell. Dangling around my neck, a simple necklace.

The following week, I go to take the GRE exam and am sure to wear my necklace. As the exam begins, I slowly let the air ease from my lungs and give my bell a tiny shake.

The gentle tinkling sound meets my ears, and I remember that somebody believes in me.