From Reader to Writer

Thursday, December 18, 2014


From Reader to Writer
The experiences that led to my passion for writing.

There was a caterpillar in my chocolate cake. 

He looked a little fuzzy with a green body and bright red head, and he was eating a hole right through my slice of cake. Surprisingly, he didn't stop at the cake either. In fact, he ate a hole through every item of food in front of me. Why? He was one very hungry caterpillar.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle was the first book I learned to read. I was three years old when the story was first read to me in my preschool class, and had been so fascinated by the story that I begged my mother to teach me how to read on my own. What had started as an incredible fascination with a very hungry caterpillar soon transformed into a passion for reading that would last a lifetime. If my mother had known how much of an influence this would have on my literary future, she probably would have taught me to read much sooner. Since my mother worked short hours from home as a medical transcriptionist on our home computer, she was more than willing and able to do so, and I can recall many evenings spent reading library books from the local library with her on our blue-and-white checkered couch. I would be the first and last of my parents' four children to have this experience as a personal memory.

Both of my parents came from privileged family backgrounds where their own parents had been wealthy enough to sponsor their children's education. My mother earned an Accounting degree from the University of Texas, but soon pursued her interest in law by attaining a Criminal Justice degree as well before attending St. Edwards University for law school. Here is where she met my father who was earning his degree in Education after serving four years in the U.S. Coast Guard. After graduation, my father would accept a job teaching and coaching soccer at Hays High School where he would remain for the next fifteen years. My mother, uncomfortable defending criminals, would work as a paramedic until my birth when she would begin working from home. As the family continued to grow, though, my parents' combined salaries struggled to support their lifestyle, and my mother would return to college to pursue another degree in a higher-paying career field. Since then, my mother has earned another two degrees while my father has relocated his teaching career to King High School in Corpus Christi. 

Considering my father’s teaching career as well as my mother’s near-constant state of learning, I would conclude that my family environment definitely had a major influence in my literacies. Having influenced my passion for reading, my mother knew she could always count on me to join her at Barnes & Noble where we would read books together for hours. Although she would originally use the need to study as an excuse, my mother and I would both wind up browsing the shelves and reading whatever we found interesting with plastic cups full of Starbucks coffee in one hand and a giant stack of books in the other. It was always a struggle to finally sit down and actually read the stack of books we were carrying, but eventually we’d manage to get comfortable; our silent moments of reading punctuated by the occasional chatter of what we found most interesting to read.

“Wow. How interesting.” My mother would say before describing the passage she had just read in one of the psychology books she was reading.

My mother had a deep need to understand people (a need that I happened to inherit as well) and we both found books on psychological studies incredibly intriguing. The empathy that we gained from reading such content also propelled our interest in fiction books with a meaningful plot-line. While my mother preferred tales of overcoming tragedies, though (such as anything by Jodi Piccolt), I was more interested in getting lost in the fictional worlds of characters I could relate to, which usually involved average people faced with extraordinary circumstances. Since I found character more interesting than plot, my stack of books would be significantly higher than my mother’s, often consisting of books from many different genres and authors.

“Don’t tell your father.” She would tell me as she paid for the mountain of books we couldn’t finish before closing time.

I always took my mother’s warning seriously. My father was a teacher, but I had never seen him use a book as anything other than a coaster. A passion for reading was extremely lacking in my father, but he expressed his passions in another way that had just as much influence in my life. Determination, teamwork, motivation, and empathy were values he held in high regard in all aspects of his life.

“Communicate with your team!” He’d yell at the television screen during an intense football game, directing his voice at a player who would never hear it. “You’re not the team, son! Get out of your head, and get into the game!”

I understood my father’s passion for sports about as much as he understood my passion for books, but I always found his “coaching-from-afar” to be rather inspiring. In general, my father had a way of thinking and speaking that encouraged all who would listen to adopt the values he found important. He was a captivating story-teller whose stories were as inspiring as they were entertaining.

“I have a terrible kid in my class this year, but he’s such a great kid.” My father would mention during dinner. 

“How so?” I would ask, knowing these types of stories were always interesting.

“He’s a smart kid, but he’s in terrible shape. I lined up the whole team behind him so that they could keep him moving, but he still wound up stopping halfway around the track. So I told the kids that if each and every one of them couldn’t finish all four laps without stopping, I’d make them run twice as much the next day.”

“And?”

“They finished all four laps without stopping.”

“All of them?”

Everyone.” He confirmed, nodding his head triumphantly. “Struggle is purely mental. All the kid needed was some motivation.”

My father was full of inspirational stories like these, and I consider him to be a large influence in my passion for writing. Crafting creative stories is as much a part of me as reading them, and even though my father can hardly pass a spelling test at a fifth-grade level (at the age of fifty), I credit him fully for my ability to write creatively.

Unfortunately, not all teachers managed to be as motivating and inspiring as my father. By the time I entered the third grade, political factors had begun to influence the way curriculum was taught in a classroom. The introduction of standardized testing in public schools required teachers to focus their curriculum on what was going to be presented in the test; often times forcing comprehension in very short periods of time. This new method of teaching did very little to encourage motivation in terms of an education and/or personal growth. Starting in third grade, this method of teaching was the basis of every class.

“We’re preparing you for TAKS.” My teachers would claim.

This statement was used so much in the course of my education, it might as well have been the official motto. The focus on preparing students for standardized testing, though, was a new concept for me in third grade. Just one year earlier, the emphasis had been the exact opposite. My second grade teacher, Mr. Toran, put very little emphasis on anything related to a textbook or standardized test. Instead, he instilled in his students the encouraging motto “If you believe, you can achieve” and would tell us stories of the success he had experienced in his life based on this motto. Even our curriculum would be incorporated in this motto: Christopher Columbus founded the Americas because he believed another “world” existed outside of Spain; planet Earth was found to not be flat after all because one brave scientist dared to believe it was round.

“If you believe, you can achieve.” Mr. Toran reminded me as I struggled through a math problem.

It’s a motto I learned to repeat to myself over the years as educational encouragement was replaced by the mental exhaustion of comprehension-overload force-fed by teachers in classrooms. It’s also a motto that most students were never taught. Therefore, the personal motivation to succeed in a learning environment was lacking in the vast majority of my peers in that same environment. The motto of preparing for standardized testing wasn’t motivating, and without motivation, school seemed to lose it’s influence.

Despite my school environments losing the influence it had once had on me, I never forgot the motto of my second grade class. I learned to apply it to the often frustrating classes in the years that followed, and especially when I was forced to withdraw from public school to be homeschooled. With my parents working full-time, pursuing an education was left solely up to me during my homeschooled years. Starting my junior year of high school, a typical school day for me consisted of cracking open a thick textbook written specifically for homeschooling, and teaching myself the curriculum my mother had assigned for me that day. Without anybody around to help, it would often take hours for me to complete a single subject with enough comprehension to pass the weekly exams I was given. Completing an assignment, learning new material, and even graduation sometimes seemed like an impossible fantasy, but the belief in myself is ultimately what I believe resulted in my academic achievements.

After graduation, I found it harder to retain the amount of determination it took to reach academic success at a college level. Although I wound up taking a two-year-long break from furthering my education, I never stopped reading and writing. I continued to read anything that interested me while using my own life experiences as my muse to write stories similar to the ones I loved to read.

People always ask me whether I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Considering how I grew up, it feels more impossible to think I could have been anything else.

So the answer is yes.




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