Conversations with Ray

As some of you know, this week marks Share a Story - Shape a Future 2011.  Each day bloggers around the world will write on a specific topic related to literacy.  Today's topic is "The Gift of Reading" -- a subject that just happens to coincide with a post I've been planning for a while now, ever since I stumbled across this old photograph ...

That is my father, John Wheeler Auxier.[1. Please note that he is John and I am Jonathan ... a  difference I cling to when accused of being a “jr.”]  He’s reading Doctor DeSoto to me and my sisters.  This was one of hundreds of books he read aloud to us, always using voices, always willing to indulge us with “just one more.”

All through elementary school, my father made regular visits to our classes to read aloud.  He did this every week from first to sixth grade.  This was not a luxury of time;  during many of these years he was working two or three jobs to keep the family afloat -- all while trying to complete graduate school.  Still, he always made time to read.[2. In fact, I would argue that reading aloud is one of few "advantages" a parent can give their child that doesn’t cost money.]

When I think about "the gift of reading," I picture my father standing before my class, caught up in a terrifying impression of Blind Old Pew or Jadis, the Last Queen of Charn.  I remember watching him, proud and hopeful that I might one day be able to orate with such passion.  I suspected then what I know now:  it is not enough just to buy a kid a book.  It is not even enough to let kids see you read.  Reading must be relational.  The difference between reading a stop sign and reading a book is that the latter is a conversation between the audience and storyteller.  Everything else is just words on a page.

Even after I reached "reading fluency," my father continued to read aloud to me -- sharing books that were otherwise just out of reach.  I was in fifth grade when he read  Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.   Anyone who knows this book knows that it is a story meant to be handed down from father to son.  The copy he read to me was a tattered first edition, stamped inside and out with the words "Property of John. W. Auxier" from when he was a boy.  Of course, I didn’t understand everything I heard, but I understood enough to be thrilled.  When he finished reading it, he gave the book to me, and I have re-read it every October since.  Often aloud.

Ray Bradbury soon became my favorite author, and a few years later, my father took me to a writing convention to meet him in person.  I only remember two things from that busy day.  The first was when my father mentioned -- almost in passing -- that he thought I should be a writer.  The second was something that happened at the end of the day:

Bradbury had finished his keynote address and was now signing books, battling off hundreds of eager fans all clamoring to meet him.  My father, who had gone to the washroom, returned from the hall a moment later with a bemused smirk. "I just peed next to Ray Bradbury," he said.

A million things rushed through my mind -- among them the realization that Bradbury was, in fact, bound by the laws of nature.  And imagine the luck!  Hundreds of people were waiting in line for this man's signature, and my father got a private audience.  "What did you say to him?" I asked, imagining what question I might have chosen.

He shrugged. "I told him 'Your signing-hand must be pretty sore.'"

I remember being in total awe:  when faced with his childhood hero, my father had remained completely calm -- casual even.  But looking back on that day, his reaction seems less shocking to me now.

After all, my father had been having conversations with Ray his whole life.

*     *     *

For those interested in other "Gift of Reading" stories, I highly recommend you check out BookDads, where Chris Singer has brought together dozens of bloggers to tell stories about fatherhood and the Gift of Reading.  Then pick up a copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes and read it to someone.