I was walking back to my office a few weeks ago and an older, Latino gentleman stood in front of me holding out a small stack of paper. Several people had sidestepped him, but I stopped and met his gaze just long enough to intuit that he meant to hand out his slips of paper . I took one, and he nodded and walked away without a word. The slip was a Xerox copy of a handwritten note. The handwriting caught my attention. The letters were meticulously formed but revealed a kind of unsteadiness, like how kids write when they’re gripping the pencil too hard–that tightness has the opposite of the intended effect, especially when turning “o”s and “e”s, making the words look wavy. There was effort in this message, as though whoever wrote it was determined to make sure the meaning didn’t get lost in the penmanship. It read: “I didn’t take down the Twin Towers. I don’t have a criminal record, neither does my son, daughter, grandchildren, sister, and my parents are innocent. I don’t sell nor do drugs. neither am i a terrorist. I don’t have any record in general. I am not included in a mafia.” I looked back to see the if the man was still somewhere behind me, to see whether anyone else had stopped and taken a slip. But he was gone, and the street was a bustle of strangers. I folded the paper into my pocket. A few days later, I saved it from going through the wash in my jeans but then forgot it in the laundry room. When I rediscovered it, I put it in my bag but later lost it in the car while digging for my keys. And so it went, appearing and disappearing for weeks. I didn’t know what to do with the message but couldn’t let it go. It wasn’t just words on paper, it was a voice. How do you throw that away?
I recently attended an event and sat next to another writer who shyly admitted that he wasn’t a strong reader as a kid. I whacked the side of his arm and said, “No way! Me too.”
Growing up, I’d always heard that to be a good writer you have to be a good reader, so I crossed “author” off my ambition list in the second grade. I was a remedial reader all through elementary school and, year after year, found myself in Mrs. Pasada’s remedial reading class. There were never more than a couple of us in her room at a time, which made it feel a like a secret. We wanted to keep it that way. I struggled tracking words on the page and understanding what I was reading while I was reading it. Mrs. Pasada put me on a strict diet of SRA books, and I worked through them hoping I would one day reach the end. But the thing about SRA books is that they never really seem to end; they just keep going in an endless rainbow of color-coded levels.
By the end of fifth grade, I didn’t have to report to Mrs. Pasada anymore, but for a long time after that I associated reading with being a chore. I enjoy reading now but sometimes get flashes of imposter syndrome when people reminisce about their childhoods absorbed in the pages of a book. That’s why it was nice to meet a fellow writer with a similar story–a sense of community can take surprising forms.