Monday, November 12, 2012

Captains Courageous

If you've read The Mercury today, you may have seen a story I wrote about the Literacy program run by the YWCA Tri-County.

In it, we announced that for the next month, we will be helping to raise money for the program through a simple method.

Simply provide your name and e-mail as a sign of support for the program, and $1 will be donated for each person to so.

Of course, if you feel the desire to donate more yourself, you may of course feel free.

To do so, just click this link and you will be taken to a web page where you can provide that information.

You'll know you're in the right place because you'll see this little morsel from Ben Franklin:
"Tell me and I’ll forget,
Involve me and I’ll learn.
Teach me and I’ll remember."
Once there, give your name and e-mail in the box provided and, if you wish, indicate how you got there by picking The Digital Notebook from among the list of bloggers who are helping in this drive.

Having just written about the program, I think I will let the news story speak for itself on the specifics. It is, needless to say, extremely worthwhile.

And yes, at a later date, I may take up this banner again, and throw some statistics at you about how important English and mathematical literacy are in the modern world -- how it translates into higher income, a better life for your family.

But not today.

Instead, I want to talk a little bit about the importance of language in itself. Or rather, the beauty of it.

Each language has its own rhythms and English is no different.

And English is, apparently, the language to which I am permanently wed.

After six years of Spanish, I can still barely speak a word and I have become convinced that, unlike other, luckier individuals, I will only ever think in, dream in and speak in English.

So my heart goes out to those brave souls who not only travel overseas to America for a better life, but face the additionally redoubtable challenge of learning a new language on top of everything else.

The thought of it intimidates me beyond measure.

Anyway, on to the book.

Forever tainted by his views on the "White Man's Burden," I remain a Rudyard Kipling fan at arms' length only; and only because I have no choice.

At its core, "Captains Courageous" is about understanding things from a different perspective, and about growing up.

In it, a spoiled son of a railroad magnate of the "Gilded Age," falls overboard on a transatlantic journey and is rescued by sea-roughened fisherman on the Grand Banks.

These men, and their captain in particular, have no intention of bringing him in to port until they have finished filling with fish the hold of the "We're Here," an aptly named vessel if ever there was one.

Offered a job on the ship instead, Harvey Cheyne gradually learns what it means to work for a living, and to respect those who do.

However, I must confess that this book made an impression on me not because of it's story.

(I further confess I had to look it up on Wikipedia to jog my memory.)

What made the impression on me was how I read it, which is to say I didn't.

It was read to me.

By my father.

I was 11 when my parents first separated.

My sister and mother and I stayed in the rambling old home in Shrub Oak, NY and my father moved out.

A writer, as he remains today, he of course had no money.

So during his "visitations" he could often afford little more than a movie and McDonald's with my sister and I.

And for a time, I suspect even that was beyond his budget.

And so, he would come on a given afternoon while my mother was still at work, and read to me.

The book he read was, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, "Captains Courageous."

The reason I had to look up the particulars of the plot was because when my father would read this book to me, I was often lulled into an unfocused state by the sound of his voice.

As I recall, he would sit on the impossibly colored orange couch, while I laid on a lime green carpet of equal outrageousness (hey, it was the 70s people), with my head under a large round coffee table my mother still has to this day.

Needless to say I relished the attention. It was just he and I and he was doing something just for me.

My father has a great reading voice.

When I was older, he once was one of the featured readers for a marathon reading of "Moby Dick" at a library out on Long Island where he lives now and my step-mother and I were very impressed at the honor of his being chosen -- that is until we fell asleep listening to tales of the great white whale.

Some books, even great ones it seems, should be read aloud only inside your head.

Nevertheless, as a writer, and a good one, he knows how punctuation works.

He pauses where he should.

He emphasizes the right syllables.

He knows just when to look up to make sure you are paying attention.

In other words, he always speaks the spell exactly right.

It was during those sessions that I realized how a magical thing writing is, as is the ability to read it.

Until written language, language was just talking. Things were passed down by oral tradition, but no one, outside the sound of your voice, could know what you were saying, or how.

But once you figure out the mechanics of reading and writing, boring stuff really, it allows you to capture the music of those words spoken aloud exactly as the author intended -- like a fly, or a flower, preserved in amber, or an ice cube.

You can pick up a book and stand right next to that person telling you the story at any time you wish.

If you're lucky, and know how to read and write in your native tongue, when you come to America, you are likely already motivated to learn English; not only because of the doors it will open for you here, but because you understand how language works.

It's those who have struggled, for whatever reason, to learn to read and write to whom my heart really goes out.

I write this in a room surrounded by books. Books falling out of the bookshelf, piled on to the floor.

For my entire life, my father has lived in a house where books are piled in a Dickensian fashion all over the house, and you never know what treasure you my come across on a rainy afternoon.

I've read many of them, his books and mine, and mean to read many of the rest.

It is, without a doubt, my favorite pastime and I cannot imagine a life worth living without them.

I feel for anyone who goes through life denied this opportunity for escape; this opportunity for wonderment or for simple knowledge.

And I applaud anyone who not only takes it upon themselves to learn it, but also those who take upon themselves to teach it.

They are, truly, Captains Courageous.

Please give generously.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this focus on the beauty of our spoken language, specifically reading to children.

    My mother fondly remembers listening to her third grade teacher read a chapter or two of Black Beauty to the class each day leading up to Christmas vacation.

    She gave me a copy of the book to read to my daughter when she was in third grade, and we continued the tradition with the Little House on the Prairie books.

    Those memories reading together are some of our most treasured.