How to Read a Book 101 by Deidra D. Neal

Dandi sunsetTwo and a half years ago, I pulled my children out of the public school system and commenced homeschooling. I did this for several reasons. Both children were in the top 1% of their respective classes, and both were and are very well “socialized.” Yet, they had just changed schools into a new school district, and the change wasn’t going very well for my son. He entered the sixth grade – middle school! Which should have been a very exciting time for him, but his new school was very different from the old one.

For one, the children are scanned for weapons upon entering. For another, these are children who should be scanned for weapons. There are no lockers so drugs and weapons cannot be hidden, thus all books and materials for classes must be toted about all day long, quite a heavy burden for small shoulders. The teaching and administrative staff was very, very different than before, as well. All in all, it was not a positive change for either of them. They were wilting, and I saw it happening.

Their father had died, quite suddenly, a few months prior, from a massive coronary at age 49: the ultimate heavy burden for such small shoulders. They were struggling in their grief; I was struggling with grief and struggling in general with Life and All It Holds; just too many struggles with too much at stake, so I took them out of school and kept them as close to me as I possibly could, for as long as I possibly could, until it got better for them (and for me.) They were 10 and 8 years old.

While I was creating their curriculum from various sources, which I totally did not know how to do and was so out of my depth that I had to research, research, research (and pray, pray, pray), I gave them reading assignments. The first book I ever handed my son and said, “Read this. Then we’ll talk.”, was The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. He just looked at me, then said, “Are you KIDDING ME?!?!” No, I am not. Read it. Start NOW. Come back to me in a few chapters, and we’ll review your progress. (insert bug-eyed emo here, ’cause that’s how he looked at me.)

He came back to me after a few chapters and we reviewed his progress. He was unimpressed. I persisted. I forced him to tell me about what he had read, so he offered a shallow synopsis of the story line thus far. I listened, then I said, “Son…. you’re just reading the words – the words alone, and you just spit them back out at me. I’ve read the story! I want you to do more than just read the words: I want you to understand the meaning within and underneath them. I want you to think and look and search and understand on a deeper level, not just “hear” in your mind. All of that is a Tall Order, and you must do it. Go read some more, then we’ll talk again.”

He said, “Whaddaya mean, ‘meaning underneath’?” Son, do you know what a metaphor is? He did, but not in the sense that an entire story could be one. I said, “Go read some more – more deeply, this time. Don’t just hop/skip/jump over the words like literary hopscotch, like a young child would do – READ! Think! Understand! Then we’ll talk again.”

At our next meeting, his report was more in-depth. He described the mother to me, and we talked about her, about why she was emotionally distant. I asked him why he thought she was the way she was. He said, “Her loss…. her loss was too great, before he came along. She is protecting herself from loss.” I said “do you think that’s the best way to protect yourself from loss?” He said, “Well…. it’s one way, anyway.” Son, can you protect yourself from loss? “No ma’am. I think… mostly, you cannot. Not that kind of loss, anyway.” I said, “Good. Go read more.”

So he did, and we visited several more times as he progressed through the book, and then he finished it. He came to me, clutching the book to his chest, and he was in tears. He said, “Momma…. Momma! It was so sad, so so sad…” and I agreed. Then he said, “It was the end, wasn’t it?” The end of what, son? “It was the end of his childhood. It was a metaphor for the end of his childhood, the yearling and this book and this story – a metaphor for how he couldn’t be a child any longer. He was the yearling.” and I said, “Yes.” and he said, “I understand this book! I do, because I’m Jody! I’m the yearling! And…. really…. it’s all over for me now, too, isn’t it? It’s not fair! Things dying and people dying and childhood dying!”

And so, there we were, mother and son, crying together, then I said, “No, honey, it’s not fair and it’s not completely over, but yes, much of yours is gone, and yes, it was taken from you too soon. But let’s don’t be sad for too long, because now is the beginning of something new! Something new that you and I will face head up and shoulders back! You becoming a man. I’m excited! I want you to be excited, too, because neither one of us will know what we’re doing!!! It’ll be an ADVENTURE.”

He groaned through his tears. He said, “Oh LORD…. that’s exactly what you say just before we get totally lost going somewhere! Every single time, that is what you say! ‘an ADVENTURE’, you say!” and he mimicked my voice (and did quite well, actually). I said, “Well… yeah…. maybe – but we always get where we’re going, don’t we? And isn’t it always ‘an Adventure’?”, and I mimicked him mimicking me, and we laughed and laughed, still crying just a little bit.

We still talk about The Yearling, sometimes, and it has, indeed, been an Adventure and still is. He and his sister were enrolled in public schools this year – different school, different district, different experience entirely. And when they were given assessment tests to see if they were ready, this is what the administrator said to me: “Off the charts. They scored off the charts!” and she was very excited, and so was I. That was one adventure where we got where we were going despite being lost in the beginning, thank goodness.

Adventure: something you get to go on whether you’ve signed up or not, whether you’re lost or not, whether you’re prepared or not. Also known as Life.

Carry on.

423915_3512122652796_500115591_nDeidra D. Neal is a middle-aged mom of a teen and a “tween.” A writer of absurdities and other such Life Stuff, she loves to make soups and read autobiographical books about warfare, but not at the same time. You can find her on Facebook pretty much any time, day or night, rain or shine, happy or sad. Her Life Motto is “Carry on!” – so that’s what she does.

About Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher, and author with over 20 years of experience in newspaper journalism. She co-publishes Space and Time magazine with author husband Ryan Aussie Smith. For more information visit
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6 Responses to How to Read a Book 101 by Deidra D. Neal

  1. Anne Sanders says:

    What strength, tenderness and sensitivity. I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband. You are doing a great job! Hang in there.

  2. Leisa Tarbuck says:

    Oh Deidra, You express yourself so well, your son is wonderful because of you, you’ve fought yourself back and you’re the mother that those wonderful children deserve. You’re an exceptional lady and your writing is exceptional. Your children’s father is very proud of you, for picking up and taking them on life’s adventures.

  3. Deidra D. Neal says:

    Thank you both for your kind words. How encouraging! I appreciate you reading my work and commenting – it means so much, and many, many thanks to Angela for letting me be here! Thank you and best regards to all – Deidra

  4. Frank says:

    What a great story. Wonderfully written, heart felt and endearing. Wonderful job on the article and life Deidra!

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