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Tolstoy in Kindergarten

Tolstoy in Kindergarten

I assumed that if I got in early, our daughter would be in full literary swing by the time she reached nursery school. Was I ever wrong.


My husband and I named our firstborn Bruria after the famous female Talmudic scholar, and we had high hopes for her. First priority was literacy, and since my nieces were reading when they were three, I assumed that if I got in early, our Bruria would also be in full literary swing by the time she reached nursery school.

So I dutifully started with the letters and sounds and tapes, labeling every item in the house, in constant education mode. Nothing happened. Bruria loved listening to stories, but when I paused before a word to see if she could work it out herself, there was just silence.

By the time Bruria was three and a half and there wasn't an inkling of literacy, I decided to take her to a nationally renowned reading expert. It was a whole operation to get her there, with both my husband and me, our nanny and new baby in tow. By the time we arrived, Bruria was hungry and restless and about to have a tantrum.

After the interview, the specialist told us gently that there really wasn't any need to start with testing when a child was three. But she did find that Bruria had phonemic awareness problems. I gasped, a diagnosis! She was retarded or at least learning disabled! Now there was a project for me to jump right into.

No, no, no the specialist assured us, there was nothing to do, just keep reading to her, and come back if there was still a problem when she was six.

"What on earth are you doing to the girl?" a friend asked me, after I described our trip to the expert. "She has such a wonderful ego and you're just destroying it because of some crazy notion that she has to be up to Tolstoy in kindergarten. Let her be a little!"

There are a very few milestones in life that really land you in a different universe. Perhaps walking, childbirth, death -- and reading your first novel.

Suddenly I came to my senses: self esteem was in fact my goal. I just so wanted her to have the time to get through the literature I had forfeited when I became obsessed with grades at school. But this dream of mine wasn't getting Bruria where I wanted her to go; she was just becoming nervous and unhappy around books. What a nightmare.

So we laid off for many years, and she didn't come to the preschool interview leafing through War and Peace. To my great shock, she was still admitted.

Last week, at age seven, Bruria finished her first novel, The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. I wanted to make a blessing of Thanksgiving -- birkat hoda'a. There are a very few milestones in life that really land you in a different universe. Perhaps walking, childbirth, death -- and reading your first novel. There is no experience like it, each time you enter a new imaginary world and the writer guides you through places and times you could never know -- and when you land back in reality, you're still on the living room couch. Reading links you with other peoples and eras, and puts you at the center of the vast human dialogue.

Well, this philosophy is all very nice, but now we're drowning in books. There are piles in the bathroom and on the kitchen table and under the table. Most of the time now I'm asking Bruria to return the old book to the shelf before getting out a new one. "But that is ridiculous!" she cries. "How can I be reading only one book at a time? There have to be at least three different adventures every place I'm sitting!"

We're not up to Talmud yet. But Bruria did read me (in a lovely sing-song tune) all Jacob's blessings to his children, and I too felt blessed.

I still read to Bruria. And I am rediscovering all the wonderful worlds of words I lost so long ago when I decided I had to turn my precious literature into something economically productive. Thankfully, my daughter has no notion that her joy in books has any purpose other than pure pleasure.

May it always be so.

July 2, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Rosally Saltsman, July 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Yeah I did that too

I feel so guilty every time I think about how I tried to teach my son to read at two. Now I keep nagging him to stop reading for a minute. :)

(7) Chana Levi, July 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Pushy parents

As a long-time English teacher, I always read to my children but didnt push them. When my oldest was five, a child in his class went for special reading lessons. The originator of this program assured the parents that their kids would be able to read the Encyclopedia Britannica at age six. In actual fact, at age six, this child was reading no better than other children who hadnt been pushed into this ridiculous reading program. Just read to your kids and let them learn to love it, as Bruria did. Pushing kids before they are ready makes no sense and may just get the kids to dislike reading. As for Roald Dahl, not only was he anti-semitic but some of his writing is weird and scary for children. There is now wonderful Jewish literature available, good for Jewish kids' minds and neshamas and much more suitable for all the little Brurias out there!

(6) Anonymous, July 4, 2005 12:00 AM

She was retarded or at least learning disabled!

i was horrified to read this sentence. my two daughters and myself are learning disabled. we are productive and useful members of society. both my daughters are serving in the army.
even if your daughter was "retarded or at least learning disabled" . she would be your daughter and you would love her and do everything to make her life good so please do not think if a person isn't Einstein (who actually was dyslectic), they deserve to be respected!!!!

(5) Anna from New Zealand, July 4, 2005 12:00 AM

I ,too, am a biblioholic

I was reading by the age of three, and, like Bruria, go into withdrawal symptoms if I don't have reading material always within reach. I long ago lost count of the number of books I own; seven large bookcases full, and I mean full-books piled on top of books, and stacked halfway to the ceiling on the top shelves.

I didn't know that Roald Dahl was an anti-Semite. I never liked his books anyway !

Has Bruria discovered Elizabeth Enright ? Thimble Summer, Gone-away Lake and the others are true classics.

I was very fortunate not only to have been turned loose on the bookcases in my home (with a few restrictions) but to have two marvellous teachers who fed my thirst for the printed word. Thus I began reading Dickens, Shakespeare, the Brontes and other classics at seven, not realising that these were not usual childrens' books.

Give my love to Bruria. I forget who said 'My mind to me a kingdom is.' (Sir Walter Raleigh ?)

WARNING: the printed word is highly addictive, and the addiction is likely to be lifelong !

Has Bruria discovered Noel Streatfeild yet ? Or Kipling ? Or Louisa May Alcott ? Or....

(4) Linzie, July 3, 2005 12:00 AM

That was a very good story!!

I started reading at the age of two and at the age of sixteen, I still read something every day. Thanks for the great story.

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