The Worst Cowgirl in the Wild West of Words



By: Sophie Hood

Reading is easy, and reading is fun—but only for other kids. Not for you.

 

For you, words double, fracture, and run right off the page before you have time to

read them. You go to ocular therapy twice a week to learn how to corral words onto the

page and spend hours in a dark room staring at a beam of light. It doesn’t seem to work.

You’ve been in the lowest reading group since you were old enough to notice that

teachers were splitting kids into groups. You’ve accepted that words are wild animals and

your inability to tame them will keep you in the “fun group” or the “go at your own pace

group.” You protect your little ego with the flimsy explanations adults have given you

over the years about the difference between reading speed and reading aptitude. You tell

yourself that the ocularly typical kids are no better than you are and that you’re special

for knowing the word “ocular” at all. This year, third grade, the rift between the

“advanced group” and “fun group” becomes painfully obvious. The bookshelf for

advanced kids is filled with hardback books two inches thick, with inside covers

describing complex characters, and teeming with all those words you can never seem to

catch. The fun section, on the other hand, has books made of cardboard so toddlers can

teethe on them. Your teacher gives the class five minutes to pick a book from their

respective sections to read for homework. Kids shout, holler, and fight over books. You

are not one of these kids. You stick to the back lacking the enthusiasm to even pick a

book at random. When the five minutes are almost over and most of the other students

have taken their seats, a book catches your eye: The Secret Garden, it’s glossy spine

sticking out slightly on the top shelf -- the advanced shelf. You reach up and grab it; at

the moment you aren’t fully sure why, but once you sit at your desk, it somehow feels

right. At home, you will not be rushed or distracted. You will take your time to pin every

word to the page, read them, and prove that you have the aptitude of an advanced reader.

 

When Mom notices The Secret Garden in your backpack after school, it feels

even more right. Your smile grows wider and wider as she tells what a good choice you

have made and that she’s glad you’re challenging yourself. After that shower of

positivity, you rush to show the book to Dad. While Mom’s opinion matters to you

greatly on many subjects, Dad is the reigning authority on reading. Nothing rivals his

love for reading except maybe your love for him, and you know he wants you to love

reading just as much as he does. While your sight has improved, your love for

reading has lagged. You blame it on the boring and simple books filled with

weakling words that are easily caught. Only runt-of-the-litter words are offered to you:

The Worst Cowgirl in the Wild West of Words. You aim to change your title when you

triumphantly drop The Secret Garden in Dad’s lap. After explaining your choice to him,

he is overjoyed. He too is glad you are taking the challenge. He asks you to analyze the

book for meaning and discuss it with him as you read through it. Your parents were far

more apathetic about the juvenile books you read in the past, and their current excitement

confirms that you made the right choice. Mom and Dad, as an almost nightly ritual, sit on the bed and read together

 

. They often invite you to read with them but you are usually

 

disruptive to their quiet reading environment when your simple books lose your

interest. That is all going to change tonight. The Secret Garden in hand, you march into

their bedroom and nestle yourself in between your parents, ready to love reading, ready to

show them that you love reading.

 

You flip to the creamy first page of the book, and, having skipped the introduction

so that it looks like you’ve already made progress, you look like a real reader. The spine

of the book delicately placed on your knees, you feel a shock of excitement run up your

spine. As you look down at chapter one, the words seem smaller than you’ve ever seen

before. You decide it won’t be a problem and bring the book closer to your face. Just as

the words begin to go into focus, they vanish. Your heart sinks as the words double and

dance right off the page. You look up from your book to your parents; Dad is already

immersed in his book, but Mom looks back at you and smiles. That smile motivates you,

and you return to the pages. You focus hard and the words return. You begin to read, but

as you go, it gets harder. Tilting your head to one side seems to make the words stay in

their pens. Then when that isn’t enough you close one eye, but even that one canted eye

can’t make the words take orders. All of this work has only brought you to page three.

The meager progress seems impossible. It’s humiliating. You don’t love reading. You

can’t. How could you like this?

 

You don’t want to tell them though. You start turning the page every once in

awhile without reading. Your dad jokes that you’re reading very quickly and asks if

you’re skimming. You freeze and say yes but that you’re going to go back to actually

reading now. You stay on that one page for a while. You then look to the side and begin

to keep track of how fast your parents turn their pages and devise a system. When Dad

turns the page, wait fifteen seconds and then turn yours. If Mom turns her page, within

those seconds start the counting over and turn your page fifteen seconds later. You are

proud of this system; it took a great deal of trial and error for no one to question your

pace. Now everything seems normal; everything is normal. Everything is perfect here

between Mom and Dad, in the warmth of their bed, reading.

 

My imitation of reading over time evolved into actual reading, but for years the

act of reading was still a kind of imitation. My ocular issues robbed me of discovering

my own reasons to read, so I found reasons outside of myself. Reading felt pointless, and

not reading felt shameful, which left me in a Catch 22. My drive to read was entirely

external which left me empty. I didn’t find internal motivation until I was much older and

wasn’t expecting to.

 

You have some free time after school, a rarity considering your sophomore year

of high school is in full swing. All you have left for homework is reading a couple

chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and you know your teacher won’t check annotations,

so it will take no time at all. With the prospect of binge-watching Buffy the

Vampire Slayer in the back of your mind, you crack the matte spine, hold the pulpy pages

in hand, and begin to read. You have a rather ugly copy of the book with extremely brittle

covers and pages poorly pasted together. The words line up for you, row by row, crystal

clear, and perfectly tame. There is no novelty in this, clarity in language has become the

norm, so the book lays like a dead thing in your lap. With each page you read to your

amazement, both you and the book come to life. You finish the pages you were assigned

and continue on in the book; with each passing word you are enveloped, entranced, and

invigorated. You find sanctuary from the stress of everyday life as Winston and Julia

find sanctuary in their apartment above the antique store. Each time you read you do it

without thinking about others. You are reading for yourself, and for the first time, you

know what reading is.

 
Sophie is 17 and lives in California.