DSC00865“What does this mean—‘brain on fire?’”  Munira pointed to the words on the page.

We were reading a passage about Helen Keller in her fourth-grade homework packet. The author was describing how Keller’s brain was suddenly “on fire” after the legendary breakthrough moment when she spelled the word “water” in her teacher Anne Sullivan’s hand; how Helen ran from object to object, demanding names, learning at least 30 words that very day.

I did my best to explain “brain on fire,” but found myself reaching for equally odd English sayings, about lightbulbs turning on or “Aha!” moments or “getting it.” Munira got it, and we read on. Like many of the Somali students I tutor in the after-school program in my neighborhood, her English is fluent but youthful and conversational. Phrases that date back a few decades, or several, stick out like a—well, like a sore thumb. I remember one afternoon last year when I had to explain the title of a reading passage called “America’s Favorite Pastime” to a student even younger than Munira: let’s just say, I’m no Anne Sullivan.

And I’m not. I am not setting brains on fire on a regular basis. But I keep showing up, because I have this naïve belief in the power of reading. Once a child is able to open a book and read, all on her own, it’s as if she possesses a magic power, a golden key to everything, that no one can take away. But just as Anne Sullivan could not persuade Helen Keller that her funny finger exercises meant anything until Keller’s brain fired up that day at the water pump, no one can make a child read. What you can do is sit next to them and do your best to keep them focused, one word at a time, until that little spark lights. Munira’s a good reader. She’s been at it for a few years now. Her brow is not knitting (oh, that’s a good one!) over the act of reading itself but over a word or phrase she doesn’t know. Her brain is on fire, in a steady, crackling, productive way.

It’s the younger ones I lose sleep over: the 7 and 8 year olds who are falling a bit behind because they haven’t had that “on-fire” breakthrough yet. I know it will happen, but for their sake, I want it to happen now.

Late in her life, Anne Sullivan’s eyesight failed altogether and Helen Keller became her teacher, trying to revive Sullivan’s once-fluent ability to read and write in Braille. But Sullivan was convinced it was too late. She, one of the most famously patient teachers in the history of teaching, could not extend that patience to herself. She had lost confidence in her own brain’s ability to ignite.  I learned this from Sullivan’s 1936 New York Times obituary, which quoted its own editorial of a few years earlier about how Keller and Sullivan were now bringing a whole new meaning to yet another old saying, “the blind leading the blind.” But it was not to be, and Sullivan blamed herself, saying she had no patience for Braille, because she couldn’t read fast enough.

Fast forward to 2014. Is it harder to teach reading in a world where everything moves so fast? Imagine: you’re seven years old, in a room full of children, noise, distraction. You’re trying to sound out one word at a time but it’s so dull and slow. And yet: there is a part of you that knows that once you get this, you too will be able to whip out a phone and text your friends like the middle school girls over in their corner. Or look things up online. Reading is about so much more than books these days. The whole world is on fire with words, words, words: and maybe getting that is what it will take to turn kids into readers, before they get too old and impatient.

 Registration is now open for my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7. 

 The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. KBCS.fm; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.