I found the wooden alphabet block with the letter I wanted and added it to the row that was beginning to spell my name — R O B E R T G O O D N . . . I needed one more O. I carefully rotated each of the blocks I had not used, but could not find another O. This was a familiar problem; there are just too many O’s in my name. Now I had to take the blocks I had already used, rotate them one by one to find another O, then find a block with the letter I had taken away. Finally it is done: R O B E R T G O O D N O U G H.
I was four years old. This set of blocks was my favourite toy. With it I could build fences, walls, barns, houses, towers. When night came, I would gather them all into the wooden box with wooden wheels and put them away for another day.
One day, I don’t remember when, my mother began to explain the meaning of the mysterious symbols on the blocks. She showed me how to spell words like M O M, D A D, C A T, D O G and then how to spell my name. Soon I began to sound out words I saw in other places and found that there was no end of things to read. An older cousin, who was once a teacher, noted my love for words and began bringing me a little book each time she and her husband made a trip to Moose Jaw.
The day that I began school, my mother went with me and informed the teacher, “Robert can read.” The teacher didn’t believe her, stuck a newspaper in front of me and said: “Read!” I read it aloud, smoothly, pronouncing almost all the words correctly, though I may not have understood all that the news story was about. Thus I began Grade 1, and was introduced to the mindless Dick and Jane books: “SEE SPOT. SEE SPOT RUN.” Not very interesting to someone who was way beyond that at home. After Christmas, I was in Grade 2.
How did it happen that I was reading at a Grade 4 level the day I started school? I don’t recall that my mother made a formal effort to teach me to read. Outside I had a trike, a wagon and a whole big yard to explore. Indoors, my set of blocks was my multipurpose toy kit, serving any purpose my imagination could dream up. The incident in the first paragraph is one of my earliest memories and it was an incident oft repeated as I learned the sounds of letters. I seem to recall that my mother did just enough to pique my curiosity, then forever after had to answer my many questions.
My mother was my first and best teacher. Yet she had known only Low German until the day she started school. She attended a private Mennonite school for six years, spending equal time learning German and English. In 1920 the Saskatchewan government decided that all private schools would be closed. When Mom went to enroll in the public school that fall, they told her she would have to begin the sixth grade again. Her father decided that if that was the case, she didn’t need to go to school anymore. Despite having only six years of formal education, I always felt that my mother had more learning than my father, who had considerably more schooling and whose mother tongue was English.
The explanation for my mother’s learning achievements lies in her physical handicap, her father’s disability and the special relationship between them. My grandfather was blind. Glaucoma had robbed him of much of his vision in his youth and he later became almost totally blind. He still ran a farm and raised fourteen healthy children.
My mother was number six and she was born with congenital hip dysplasia. Nowadays, this condition is corrected in newborns without surgery. A hundred years ago, doctors didn’t know what her problem was. They thought she had a back problem, as that was where she had pain, but had no idea how to treat it. One day, long after I was grown up, she told me that she had never walked without pain. I thought back to the times that she would play ball with me, even run foot races with me and wondered if a mother’s love had eased the pain.
Because of his blindness, my grandfather needed help, and who was more able and ready to help him than this daughter who didn’t get around as easily or as fast as his other children. She read to him, letters, farm papers, books, whatever he needed or whatever interested him. She helped him with managing the business side of the farm, helping with correspondence and learning how to manage money. If her parents went away for a Sunday dinner and she stayed home, as soon as her parents came home her father would want to know what she had been reading and she would need to retell the whole story that she had read.
A large, well-used English dictionary was one of her prized possessions. She studied it assiduously, looking up every new word she found, learning its meaning and how to use it. My aunts and uncles often accused her of having swallowed it. She spoke clear, unaccented, grammatically correct English.
In addition, our home contained hundreds of books, the legacy of my father’s parents plus the gift of his brother who had abandoned the prairies for British Columbia.
With a mother like this, and a house full of old, well-written books, how could I help but become a serious reader and a lover of good books?