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    What matters

    “Kids: they dance before they know there is anything that isn’t music.”

    William Stafford



    My mom is a tap-dancer.  She taught me to dance when I was four years old, and before my daughter’s third birthday, Mom had given her a pair of tap-shoes.  Pip loves to don her shiny black shoes and dance around the house.  I’ve tried to teach her a step or two, but my attempts have been unsuccessful.

    “Pip, see if you can make a sound with your toe-tap, and then lift it up right away, like this,”  I say, and Pip counters with:

    “Mama, I like to do it like this!”  She then executes an exciting array of original footwork.  Watching Pip reminds me of an old colleague of mine, Joanie.  She was a fabulous singer, and she went on an audition once for a role in a musical.  The singing part of the audition went well, and Joanie was asked if she knew how to tap-dance.  “Yes,” Joanie lied.  She was asked to bring her tap shoes to the call-back later on that day.   Joanie went out and purchased her first pair of tap shoes, then left the casting-director speechless when she performed her unique dance steps at the call back audition.  That takes guts.  Joanie didn’t get the part, but I like to think that the director admired her gumption.  I certainly did.

    Not many adults are willing to risk looking like fools, but kids do it all the time.  There’s such freedom in innocence.  When Pip watches dancers, she has no idea that their numbers have been choreographed.  She doesn’t know that there are organized steps that tap-dancers learn, she just puts on her shoes and starts moving!  I asked Pip once if she’d like to take tap-dancing lessons.  “Why, Mama?” she asked, “I already know how to tap-dance.”

    It’s the same with reading.  Pip loves to read.  She doesn’t actually decode the words on a page, but she combines memorized text with her own words to ‘read’ books.  Pip’s 1 1/2 year old sister, Fig, is following her lead.  The other day I snuck into the living-room and video-taped the two of them sitting side-by-side on the couch, reading aloud.  Fig was reading ‘The Gruffalo’ and Pip was reading an Usborne collection of animal stories.   Fig has only just begun to string words together, so her language was stilted: “Upon a time, The Gruffalo.  Hi Snake, what’s your name?  Ya. All done.”  Pip’s reading, on the other hand, was very fluid and expressive: “‘Maybe it’s nice to have friends,’ thought the lion, and off he went,  into the jungle.”

    Similar to my impulse to teach Pip ‘proper’ dance steps, I’m chomping at the bit when it comes to reading instruction.  The teacher in me thinks that Pip is progressing beautifully through important developmental stages on the road to literacy, and she shouldn’t be rushed.   The book-lover in me, however, anticipates the wonderful world that will open up for Pip once she can decode words, and wants to teach her to read RIGHT NOW!!!  So I compromise.  I don’t push Pip, but I do track the words with my finger as I read.   I often ask her to identify letters and we work on letter sounds, but she isn’t very interested.  Ironically, she just wants to read!   One day I thought I would simply ask, “Pip, would you like me to teach you how to read the words on a page?”  She looked at me as though I had carrots growing out of my ears, and said,

    “You’re silly, Mama!  You know I can read!”  You can’t buy that kind of confidence.

    Imagine if you could.  If you could bottle ‘confidence’ and sell it, you’d be a billionaire.  Somewhere along the way, most of us decide that there are a host of things we can not do.  How many of us have said at one point or another that we can’t sing?  Dance?  Paint?  Draw?  Why do we limit ourselves?  I wonder when we stop believing that we can do anything.


    The other night I read, ‘The Kissing Hand,’ to Pip.  Usually she chooses the bed-time story, but that night she said, “You choose, Mama.”  I hadn’t read that particular book to her in months, and she looked at it as though it was a long lost friend.  “What’s this one called again, Mama?”

    “The Kissing Hand,” I said, and I proceeded to read the book.  I didn’t track words, I didn’t stop to review any letter sounds, I simply read a beautifully crafted story about the love between a mother raccoon and her child.  After I had finished, Pip said,

    I’m going to read it to you now Mama,” and I settled in for Pip’s rendition of the book.  Her retention was amazing.  She remembered much more of the exact text than I ever could have recalled.  Kids’ brains astonish me.  On top of that, Pip delivered an original line that was startlingly poetic.  She said, “I flew straight into love with you.”

    How great is that?  Flying into love.  I like it better than falling in love.  Flying into love sounds more uplifting.  You can get excited about flying into love.

    Lying on the bed with Pip, it suddenly occurred to me that I would miss out on moments like, “I flew straight into love with you,” if Pip knew how to read the exact words on a page.  The teacher in me is absolutely right;  there’s no rush.  Pip adores books.  She loves reading.  And, in the end,  that’s all that really matters.

    2 comments to What matters

    • Reed

      I just LOVE the response, “I already know how to tap dance!” Just great.

    • Diane Barley

      When I read the part “what a wonderful world will open up when Pip can decode words” it brought back a very vivid memory of Cameron in Kindergarten on the Thanksgiving long weekend. We were up at Whistler in a restaurant and a menu was put out in front of him and rather than me reading the menu and telling the kids what was available he actually opened it and read it to me. It was the most incredible feeling for me. I love reading your blog, it always brings back great memories.

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