I didn’t learn how to read until second grade. I don’t know how factual this is, but I remember I told my mom I didn’t understand the worksheets in class and suddenly I was being taken out of Mrs. Pittman’s class on a daily basis to practice reading picture books. For a few weeks, I was given books that made the Berenstain Bears look written by William Faulkner. Soon I graduated to reading the Magic Tree House books. And, in almost time, I checked out Jaws at the public library and never looked back.
My mom says she thought I was faking. How had I gone from being illiterate to reading Peter Benchley?
My future biographers may deduce that I just had confidence issues. Maybe I really could read; I just didn’t believe I could.
Because soon I devoured novels by the week. I became a Stephen King aficionado. I struggled to read books on the Accelerated Reader (AR) list because they were below my caliber. Except for Little Women and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I never got my reading glasses to understand those, but they were a whopping 120 AR points.
Of course, many of these books I took to had vocabulary far above third grade spelling lists. To understand passages, I began flipping through my parents’ already well-worn dictionary. It was a black and tan, dusty thing, but I carried it around with my daily book along with a notebook where I wrote down all the words I did not know, but soon would. Flipping through the yellowed pages (my grandfather must’ve owned this dictionary), I would spot new words I had never seen, and I would also record their definitions. Eventually, you could argue, I read the dictionary as much as I read a novel.
Through this, I learned many new words—words you don’t even find in The New Yorker. Words no one ever spoke. Words that hadn’t been put to the page since 1789. I dropped these throughout the stories I scribed myself. Adroit. Nonchalant. Pernicious.
I also sometimes dropped these in conversations. I happened to know buxom literally meant a heavyset woman. What I lacked was societal context. “Buxom,” when spoken or written in 2001, means large-breasted.
Imagine my mother’s shock when I described a woman at the supermarket as “buxom.”
“She’s what?” my mom stuttered.
My mom stared at 10-year-old me.
“What?” I said.
“Do you know what that means?”
“Plump. Of a woman.”
My mom half-laughed, half-sighed. “Not exactly.”
By this age, I had heard of the film Silence of the Lambs. I loved scary things. My aunt declared at the family dinner she read Silence of the Lambs in the late ‘80s and couldn’t sleep for days. I became deadest on reading Thomas Harris’s cult classic.
Going through a bunch of books my grandmother grabbed at a yard sale one day, I found it: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I had never seen the movie, but I knew it was about a cannibal who liked to say Clarice Starling’s name. My grandmother had never read nor seen the movie. She said I could read it.
I didn’t waste one second. I perched myself in the living room chair and dove in. I ignored my relatives arriving for a family dinner. They asked what I was reading. I told them. They said, “Isn’t that scary?”
“I’m only on page eight,” I replied.
As in the movie, the book begins with FBI agent Clarice Starling visiting Hannibal Lecter is in his prison cell where he’s kept with all the other frightening monsters of the human world. She has to walk down a long dark corridor where the mentally insane criminals hiss things at her and try to spit. One calls her the c-word.
In 2001, at age 10, I had never heard the c-word. I did not have my dictionary on me at this particular moment. My mom was a room over, chatting with my aunt and cousin. I walked into the room. I asked, “Mom, what is a c—t?”
The conversation died.
“What did you say?” my mom said.
“What is a c—t?”
“What are you reading?”
She grabbed the book from my hand and her eyes bulged. “Who gave you this? You can’t read this!”
“Grandma gave it to me.”
“You can’t reach this until you are much older,” she repeated.
“But what does it mean?”
I’m not sure if I was more disappointed that I could not read Silence of the Lambs or that I wasn’t learning a new word.
“It’s a very inappropriate name for the female body part,” she said. “And you don’t say it aloud.”
And here I thought cannibalism was the worst thing in Silence of the Lambs. I was not allowed to pick up the book again until I was 14 and my mom gave it back to me. Even now, I’m not sure if 14 is a good age either for reading about cannibalistic serial killers. But by this point I had read William Blakely’s The Exorcist to my mother’s chagrin. She told me I needed to read a Christian book afterward because I was reading too many dark things. But I never had to ask her what the c—t word meant while reading The Exorcist. I had learned by then.