Abigail des Groseilliers
"Ever Since November: A Literacy Narrative"
College Writing 1, Dr. Richard Foss
During the frigid winters in Vermont, Sunday morning mass ended at approximately 9:40 every week to allow the rest of the day for snow clean-up and time in the evening to sit and enjoy our close family. At any age between three and ten standing next to my grandfather, affectionately known as Grandpa John, I can recall watching him close his vibrant green eyes that sat behind thick lenses and use the pointer and middle finger on his right hand to reach up to his forehead, then to his sternum, then complete the cross by tapping his left then right shoulder. Each week he would look down at me from his towering height of 6’2,” dressed in his most poised Sunday clothes, and sternly warn me with only his eyes to follow suit in completing the sign of the cross. He would then take my soft, clammy hand in his rough, calloused one, and guide me outside into crisp air and the harsh scent of diesel and oil spewing out of plow trucks and heavy machinery on Main Street. Despite the constant fear of frostbite that all elderly members of the parish seemed to be infatuated with, Grandpa John would selflessly place his tuke over my delicately braided hair and slide his oversized Army-issued gloves onto each of my trembling hands. We would then begin our 20 minute journey back to Grandpa John’s safe, warm, and cozy living room where we would delve back into the wondrous world of storytime.
It was particularly cold the week of Valentine’s Day in 2010; close to 15°F and windy as I recall. I remember that week because the priest had asked all married couples to rise and thank the Lord for their successful relationships in honor of Saint Valentine. And, I remember that year because I had just turned seven years old; the age when I didn’t have to hold anybody’s hand as I crossed the streets of Hardwick and the year I was given the honor of receiving First Communion with my fellow faith formation classmates. Grandpa John made his way to me slowly on thin but secure legs as he balanced a full mug of hot chocolate with a splash of milk, extra mini marshmallows, and a blue flexible straw; exactly how I liked it. He stared down through dense glasses at a girl who was as excited as ever to hear the story of the week. Once handing the scalding cup off to me, he turned towards the den and returned moments later with a thin hardcover book detailed with a camouflage design and thick block letters. He sat opposite of me on another light grey couch, sipped his dark roast coffee, crossed his legs, and opened the book to where we had left off last week.
That particular section of the WWII American History book was about the academic abilities military leaders were expected to have. Famous names such as Winston Churchill, George Patten, and Douglas MacArthur were listed in that chapter as having been highly educated. Each of them had used their intelligence to play a large role in winning the second World War by crafting military advance tactics, writing public journals, and publishing articles on military subjects. Several times throughout the reading Grandpa John paused to say things in his thick Canadian accent like “see, Abigail? Being Valedictorian helped Douglas MacArthur become respected and have a lot of power. If you keep up your studies, you can achieve the same.” Of course, with his love for the military, he always had to add; “and, you will make a fine General some day!” I would always respond with; “but Grandpa John… I hate school.” Each time I said this he scoffed, patiently, and reminded me that reading, writing, and math were important no matter what I wanted to do. I came to understand that I wasn’t winning this argument, so I remained quiet and listened to the next part of the story and the nagging commentary to go along with it. Being so young yet so aware felt like a constant challenge, and I wanted to live up to Grandpa John’s standards, but I felt out of place in school. I was behind by a year or so in my reading ability, and I was the kid who wrote in huge letters that took up the entire page so that I didn’t have to write more than a sentence or two. My teacher, Mrs. Spear-Duffy, a rather grumpy old lady with leathery skin and piercing blue eyes, frequently called home with complaints of my inattention during the reading and writing block we had after lunch everyday. She and my parents tried so hard to prompt me to engage but nothing seemed to be working. Personally, I saw nothing wrong with my literacy abilities, or anything good about them either… I simply knew that anything to do with words was not fun. I took notice of the effort everyone was putting into bettering my academic skills, but I couldn’t have cared less. I liked focusing on “cooler” things than reading and writing, such as riding my horse, tending the chickens, or going to Tractor Supply to pick out a new plastic toy farm animal.
Grandpa John had always been involved in my academic life; talking with teachers and my parents, as well as volunteering on the school board to ensure that my education was, in his words, “more than sufficient.” The school board adored him and his insights into proper education. He was such an intellectual fountain of knowledge and was thrilled at any chance to share his wealth of information with others. He had infinite plans for me as I began to decipher wrong from right, interesting from boring, and fact from fiction. He wanted so badly for me to get high grades so that I could enlist as an officer in the military. Because of his military ties he frequently reminded me that his connections could get me into the best military colleges in the Nation, but it was my grades that would get me to a position of ranking officer. Not a Sunday passed at his house after that week in the Winter of 2010 when we didn’t have increasingly in-depth conversations about American war history that inevitably led to conversations about my future education plans. Nevertheless, I never placed the type of interest in my education that Grandpa John did.
Grandpa John passed away at 4:30pm on November 18, 2020, two days after his 74th birthday. He left to me each and every one of his war history books; inanimate reminders of the perseverance he always wanted to see me acquire towards academics. The day I brought home those books changed my life. The smell of the old leather that bound together pages of memories and stories that I can recall to this day wafted up from the stacks and stacks of books. The camouflage covers with block lettering served to remind me of the effort I was expected to give in school, yet I had continually failed to do so. I took the initiative that next week in school, and the following months, to work a little harder on my math quiz, do a little extra research on my history paper, and open the required reading book more than two days before it was due. Specifically in English and history class I used Grandpa John’s war books for most of my sources. The more I read the books on my own, the more in love I fell with the emotionally rich stories they provide. I eventually found myself enthralled with any of the chapters having to do with aviation. Before Christmas of 2020 I knew I had found my calling; Air Traffic Control. While everyone continues to lecture me on how “stressful” the job is, all I can think about is the support and assurance Grandpa John would have given me if he was here on Earth. Of course, he is here in prayer to guide me on my college journey, and I remind myself of that every single day, in fact, every single time a plane flies overhead, too. The true dedication put towards my studies has been overwhelming at times, but I keep at it, all the while knowing that Grandpa John would be appreciative that it was his passion for reading that has led to my literary success, and inevitably, my career choice. By reading those books to me when I was younger and engaging me in deep conversations about their topics, Grandpa John planted a long-standing love for literacy that I never knew was there. And, I don’t believe I would have found this out if he didn’t leave his books to me after he passed away.
As a now self-proclaimed literary student, I can name numerous books of several genres that I have very much enjoyed in the past year including; The DiVinci Code by Dan Brown, The Shining by Stephen King, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison… each of them peaking my interest and further involving me the world of literature. There was one instance in my Junior year of highschool when I was in Ms. Drew’s AP Seminar class that was quite embarrassing. Ms. Drew, a tall, slender, blonde-hair blue-eyed woman, called on me to give my summary of chapter 5 of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer in front of the 20 students attending that 8am class. I had only scanned the pages minutes before the class, and hadn’t been able to give my full attention to the reading whatsoever. I can recall slowly standing up and making my way up to the front of the small cinder block room. When I turned to face the class I completely froze. Not only had I not retained any information, my lack of comprehension towards the rest of the book was next to nothing. I stammered through a few basic topics like Krakauer’s expert journaling style and the implications on society but it was obvious I had no clue what was going on. Ms. Drew patiently said,
“Okay, Abbie, that is enough. We can tell you haven’t read the chapter. Now return to your seat please and see me after class.”
I replied, “That is correct, ma’am, I apologize.”
And when class ended I walked up to Ms. Drew’s desk with a tomato-red face and explained,
“Again, Ms. Drew, I apologize. I should have managed my time better and read thoroughly rather than skimmed. I’m not trying to make excuses but I have a difficult time focusing when I read… I lose interest very quickly and there always seems like there is something more fun I could be doing.”
Instead of criticizing me, Ms. Drew asked if I’ve ever talked to anyone about my attention span issues. I said no, which was true. I didn’t see it as being a legitimate issue. She suggested that I come to class 20 minutes early each day to chat with her about the reading and to gain a better understanding of the material. I did this for the three months remaining in that semester. Ms. Drew and I worked intently together to come up with solutions to help me focus better, not just in her class, but all of my highschool classes. I now use two tools to combat my ADD; audiobooks and writing. Audiobooks are wonderful because I can be fidgeting and dividing my focus among several things while simultaneously listening to the book. On the other hand, when I only have a hard copy in front of me, I have learned that taking quick, funny or relatable notes each page or so helps to let out those bursts of energy while maintaining engagement in the reading. Sometimes I keep a notepad open next to the book where I draw out little images of what is being described on the pages, which also significantly increases my comprehension of complex ideas being presented.
I have learned so much in the past two years about my reading abilities, interests, and strengths, and am incredibly thankful for my grandfather, chiefly, and for Ms. Drew for being my reminder that literacy is not only essential to academic success in this world… it’s critical for my personal growth too. I also now know that there are tools at my disposal that can and will help me to be a better reader, writer, and analyst. I strive everyday to prove to myself that I can do better than the day before. And, while I may not end up fulfilling Grandpa John’s dream of me becoming a military officer, I do hope to continue this long-standing literacy journey and to reach a confidence level in my reading that he would be proud of.