Holes

My first language is Arabic. I could barely recall when I learned how to read Arabic because my mom started teaching me how to read at the age of three years. Reading and writing Arabic literature was never appealing to me as an adolescent. The only reading and writing I did were the assignments of my language classes. Instead, I enjoyed reading scientific literature and articles.  Reading the science books of my classes is what occupied most of my reading time.

At the age of thirteen, I moved to the United States with very elementary skills in speaking the English language. I came from Jordan, a country where the language is written from right to left and has alphabets that are like no other in the English language. I remember when I landed in one of the United States’ airports, there were signs in English everywhere. All of the words seemed empty; just a bunch of English letters scrambled together. When school started, I was placed in all ESL classes and I started out as a level 1. In other words, I was reading graphic books targeted for children five and under. I was a lost ESL student thinking to myself how difficult learning English is. In the classroom, there were shelves full of thick books and the thought of looking at them intimidated me. As I progressed through the levels, reading got significantly harder. The books had pictures up until level 3, which was a challenge because I relied on the pictures to interpret words I did not understand.

I was assigned to read my first novel, a book called Holes, which was the biggest struggle I have faced as a reader. I opened up the book to read the introduction. Five sentences into the introduction, my intimidation of reading the book exponentially grew because I counted how many words I did not know the meaning of and I did not understand, without exaggeration, half the words. Then, I looked at how long the book was and it was three hundred pages long, which seemed impossible to finish. I tried to talk my ESL teacher out of making me read what seemed an extremely tedious book for my English skills but she insisted that I was capable of doing it. She advised me to think of the novel as a graphic book and imagine the plots rather than know the definition of each word. In an effort to comfort and encourage me, she told me that there were some words that even she did not know the meaning of in the book. At first, I used the dictionary to look up the words I did not understand to expand my vocabulary and perceive the story better, but after a while, I gave up because the rate at which I was reading was very very slow and I had hundreds of pages ahead of me.

Although I did not fully understand the story, I was able to relate to the main character of the book who, from my understanding, was a boy who was given the choice to either go to jail or summer camp as a consequence of being accused of committing some sort of crime that he did not do. He chose to go to the summer camp. The boy reminded me very much of myself because it was never his choice nor his fault to go through these harsh circumstances. I did not choose to come to a country in which I had no friends nor did I know how to cope with this totally foreign environment. Part of what helped me perceive the story from unique perspective, despite the lack of my English skills, was my ability to relate to and imagine myself as the boy going through the obstacles he had to go through hoping that there will be a happy ending. Even if the story did not have a happy ending, I did not understand well enough to differentiate, but nonetheless, I was determined to finish the book and fantasize about a happy ending for myself.

Having finished the book provided me with confidence and hope that although my path to becoming a fluent English reader might have seemed tedious, my efforts would pay off. Three years later, my English skills have significantly gotten better, which boosted my confidence and belief that I was able to take on any challenges that life might throw my way.

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