Education

The Second Time I Learned to Read

An appreciation of teachers who push students in challenging directions.

Let's start at the beginning.

Photographer: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

I forgot again.

Every year I promise myself that when National Teacher Appreciation Week rolls around in May, I will write about the teacher who had the greatest influence on my life. And every year I look up and it’s June, and the opportunity once more slipped by me.

Not this year. This year, even if my theme is turned in late, I am going to tell you about Mrs. Judith Dickey, who taught 10th grade English at Ithaca High School back in the days when I was, as they say, still wet behind the ears. But for Mrs. Dickey, I might never have become a serious reader; meaning, I would never have become a serious writer.

You have to take a few seconds to see me as I was in high school: smart but as we would now say geeky, a compulsive joiner if not entirely likable, more fascinated by numbers than by people, with my head deep in books about science -- and science fiction. I was many things, a few of them perhaps useful, but I was not a reader. Not really.

Mrs. Dickey taught me to read. Not to read. To read.

I arrived in Ithaca reasonably well educated in every field but literature. Oh, I had read a bit of Shakespeare and Dickens, but only because my 8th and 9th grade English courses required it. Over the years I had gorged myself on comic books (my maternal grandparents owned a candy store and saved copies of our favorites for our summer visits) and science fiction (Bradbury and Asimov and Heinlein, yes, but also a lot of schlock -- I am embarrassed to admit that in those days I could quote Tom Swift by the yard). I read voraciously, but my choices were filling my head with junk. My mind was agile but not disciplined; quick but not reflective; I was much better at snappy answers than thoughtful ones.

Mrs. Dickey changed all that. She took me aside one day after class and asked me why I read such junk. (She used the very word.) I replied, a bit stupidly, that I liked what I read and I read what I liked (or something equally unclever.) I grew defensive. I refused to concede that there was anything wrong with my tastes. I was, in short, a fool.

And so she offered me a deal. She would read any three books I gave her if I would read any three books she gave me. Then we would get together after school to talk. I agreed.

Best deal I ever made.

I do not remember what books she gave me, except that they were thick hardcovers. I believe one might have been a Thomas Hardy. It makes no difference. My English teacher was right, and I was wrong. Some books are better than others. And as a teen I had no way of judging for myself.

Without that bet, I would still have read serious literature when I had to, but I’m not sure how much I would have read because I chose to. Mrs. Dickey had taught me that there are things one ought to read. I put away the books of sports records and pulpy sci-fi. By the time I finished high school, I had read all of Shakespeare, the sonnets included.

When I started college, although I began as a physics major, with lots of work in math and computer science -- you can’t entirely ungeek the geek -- I was drawn increasingly to literature. In those days you could still find a jampacked course on Western Civilization and read the great books. (Dante haunts me still.) I devoured Greek drama, medieval philosophy, Russian absurdist stories, and the novels of Updike and Baldwin. In my spare time I prowled the stacks of the campus library, in search of authors of whom I had never heard. I was an addict whose craving could never be satisfied. I was finally in the oasis after a lifetime in the desert.

And it matters.

Reading serious literature, as I have argued in this space before, promotes deep and reflective thought. Studies tell us that those who read seriously are more empathetic -- in particular, that they are more welcoming of opposing views. This makes sense. Serious literature teaches us the complexity of our fellow human beings. And a taste for complexity is exactly what we need, especially in these strained times.

I'm hardly alone. Most of us can remember a favorite teacher. But what makes a good teacher good? We know that quality is influenced far more by years on the job than by the teacher’s undergraduate training, test scores or professional development. In other words, most of the inputs we can measure have little effect on output. But to me the most interesting recent work is the 2012 study by C. Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University, whose research on noncognitive skills indicates that having a good English teacher is particularly important. Jackson’s model allows us to identify good teachers not simply by studying test scores but also by studying other aspects of the students’ subsequent lives. In particular, he found that having the right 9th-grade algebra or English teacher influences the likelihood of finishing high school and of taking the SAT (in turn a predictor of college attendance), and also may be related to earning higher wages and avoiding arrest.

Now, Mrs. Dickey was my English teacher in 10th grade, not 9th, and my algebra teacher (in 8th grade) no doubt affected me too; moreover, I doubt that I was in any case headed for prison or underemployment. I don’t suppose we yet have the tools to measure how thoughtful and patient and reflective a student is later in life. I do know that without that bet with Mrs. Dickey, I would not have become either the reader or writer that I am. The habit of mind I am describing is no easy thing to measure, but my life is better for having it.

So even though I once more missed National Teacher Appreciation Week, and am therefore tardy in handing in my essay, I want to thank Judith Dickey publicly for the great gift she gave me. Since you made it to the end of this column, chances are you have a teacher to thank too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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