I was no faster than the rest. No better at it. I learned exactly when they did, and in exactly the same way. I don’t know what happened after that. I have never known.
But I picked up speed when they did not. As if the pull of the words was intrinsic and all-powerful. Until, finally, my eyes absorbed print everywhere they fell. And my brain retained its comprehension of the words before my sight jumped to the next line and the next and the next. I sat for hours at a time in the tiny Reading Corner in my first grade class room. I read through the shelves of books as if that were my job, as if I were an ass-kicker, forever ruining the curve. I had none of these thoughts, of course. I had no thoughts except for the ones I found in the books. Those and the “Next!” my brain hollered every time I finished.
This happened at home, too. I read constantly- n’importe de quoi- ingredients on the Cheerios box if nothing else was available. When the bookmobile showed up every week, I read all of my books and then all of my siblings’ books long before it returned. My mother took us to the beautiful, old public library downtown and dashed my hopes when she told us we were each limited to ten books per week. So I took my ten in the first few minutes and spent the remainder of each visit feverishly trying to read through other books- books I could not bring home.
My mother, clever woman that she was (and still is), gave us quotas to fill with these ten books. A certain number had to be concerned with some scientific matter or other. A few had to be history or –and I loved this as it felt like cheating- historical fiction. There had to be some biographical or autobiographical stuff thrown into the ten someplace. And the rest were (joy to my childish soul) all fiction.
It was during this tunnel visoned time (when I was consumed with words and books and reading) that I found her. The very first one that I held up in front of my life. A hero. Now, a word on heroes (I don't use the word 'heroine' unless I'm discussing literature) - I do not collect them. Never really have. I admire incredible people but I will not allow that I am small and meant to be small and that others are great and meant to be great. I would rather scare myself silly by insisting that I accomplish incredible things. By insisting that I blow myself away with how incredible I am capable of being in this world. I don’t want to sit back and watch somebody else’s show. I want to live before I die.
But she was too amazing. What she decided to be- what she did- overwhelmed me. She was GREAT as only flawed human beings can be great. In my mind, she has never been replaced. She never will be. This first hero, found when I was six years old, was Harriet Tubman. This enslaved woman became not my North Star, but my South Star, forever shining in the wrong direction. Away from safety and into danger. Not a drinking gourd which might hold all the refreshment and calm that a battered human being might need, but a life broken and spilled out (by conscious choice and with some measure of cold-blooded ruthlessness) for people who still lived where she’d been.
And, my God, she was tough! She did not give a flying fuck (she probably was more of a lady than I am on the swearing) that lacking property, whiteness and a penis, she did not factor into any powerful men’s plans. She did not wait for legalities to catch up with ethics. Didn’t wait for others to sort through moral dilemmas. She saw people oppressed and in pain and goddamn well went for the jugular. How could I not love a woman like that? She didn’t turn her face away for one moment from the suffering of her fellow human beings. Got 300 souls out and away from mind-blowingly de-habilitating oppression. And pretty much lived her life like that. Spent all her money, every month, in the last few years before she died running a home for the elderly and homeless. Acted the whole time like she knew that in many cases, if she didn’t do something, nobody would.
She was a mess. I adore her. Where did she get the nerve?