One of the proudest days of my academic career was being placed in the “advanced” group after a reading assessment in first grade. As such, I was permitted to read books marked with a daunting “5.” The most challenging books set aside for young, aspiring readers – the first small steps on the way to much larger feats, like The Lord of the Rings and To Kill A Mockingbird.
But before I would be able to tackle hobbits and other, more advanced literature, I had to grapple with a purple horse named Lucille.
In retrospect, it’s very clear to me that 5-year-old Allie picked Lucille by Arnold Lobel because it was about a horse, and I’ve been an animal lover my whole life. But 5-year-old Allie should not have picked this book – she should have run far, far away, and made a different selection. And why is that?
Because I couldn’t pronounce “Lucille.”
You would think I’d pick a book with a title I could pronounce with my limited child vocabulary, but nooooooo, that would make too much sense. I’m half-sure I didn’t even look at the title when I chose it, I just saw a purple horse and was like, “YES, THIS ONE.” Kids are so impulsive. And stupid.
It was only after I got home, yanked the book out of my backpack, and scanned the front, that I realized I couldn’t read the title. And my stomach sank, because I knew at the end of the week I was going to have to read the book aloud to the teacher, and being able to read the title is a pretty big part of that. I was terrified I’d get demoted out of the advanced reading group, forever scorned by my classmates, mocked for my lack of knowledge. I’d never be able to look at horses the same way again.
I suppose I probably hoped that it was just the title, and the name didn’t pop up too much in the actual book… but that was not to be. And it’s not like I could just bloop over it, like they teach you at that age to do with words you can’t pronounce. It was like, 50% of the book. Should have watched all those reruns of I Love Lucy on TV Land when I was younger, but I was more of a Brady Bunch person.
So, what did I do? Did I ask my mom for help, which would have been the most logical thing to do? No, no. Stubborn Child-Allie had far too much pride, and that careless hubris was her downfall.
Instead of asking for help, I guessed. To be fair, I used the typically tried-and-true method of “sound it out,” and I was 100% certain that I got it right, so I didn’t bother double-checking with anyone who could, you know… actually read.
Therefore, I called the horse “Luckily.” Which, at least, is a real word. The rest of the book, after that minor snafu, was a total breeze. “Luckily” the horse has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? It’s completely wrong, but not way out in left field. More like… on the third base line. Or in foul territory.
So, I went into my next reading assessment super confident that I was going to nail it… until I sat down in an uncomfortable plastic chair in front of my first grade teacher, Lucille in hand, and the doubts began to swoop in. My certainty wavered, then snapped like a brittle twig. So when she told me to begin, I just sat there, staring at that damn purple horse, and I said nothing for a long time.
Until I finally admitted, “Um… I don’t know how to say this.”
“It’s Lucille,” my teacher explained, pronouncing it perfectly.
And then I read the book through, cover to cover, and didn’t mess up once. No damage to my reading reputation was done by the gaffe, by admitting my weakness. I wasn’t placed in a lower reading level, I continued to foster an intense love of reading and literature, and in the following years, I moved on to bigger books about worlds in wardrobes, dashing heroes, clever young detectives, and a troupe of creative babysitters.
Sometimes, it’s okay to ask for help, or to mess up a bit on an initial attempt. It’s okay to not know everything, especially if you’re five/six years old and only just learning to read proper books. You don’t need to hit a homerun your first turn at bat or score a goal your first time on the field. I might have struggled a bit with a purple horse named Lucille, but luckily, I learned from the experience – and to this day, I’m not afraid to admit when I don’t know how to pronounce a word, or can’t puzzle out a definition.