I study images and I read signs. Everywhere. Everywhere includes information displayed in museum exhibits, signs on street corners, and every word of the plaques affixed to homes in historic districts. I even read car manuals, which is how I learned to drive a stick shift. I actually bought a new car without driving it and asked a friend to drive it home for me. I made the decision to buy the car based on the cost; the standard shift model of the 1992 Nissan Sentra was the least expensive version that had cruise control and an am/fm stereo with cassette player. Since I had class later that night, I figured I better learn how to drive the car, so I read the manual. I got to class on time and in one piece.
My compulsive habit of reading every word I saw began the very second I realized reading words provided access to new information or to information adults may not want me to know. Once I learned the alphabet, I realized letters and words were everywhere. As a young child, I pestered my mother with “what does that word mean?” “Do those letters spell a word?” “What word do those letters spell?” Since my mother’s answers were not always forthcoming, I quickly realized her answers reflected her patience and whether or not she thought I needed to know the answer to my questions. As my learning progressed from letters to phonics, I wasted no time practicing my newly acquired skills. I sounded out every word I noticed. Gradually, billboards, labels, and magazine advertisements became meaningful. I have a clear memory of suddenly understanding the meaning of the words on a particular billboard we passed on the way to school and thinking, “Wow! I can read that.”
So excited was I over this new ability to decode my world that I became a never-ending source of information. “Mom, did you know ‘the Surgeon General has determined that smoking is dangerous to your health’?” “Yes,” she replied. I asked her, “Is smoking really bad for you?” “Yes.” “Why is it dangerous?” “It can cause lung cancer.” “Then, why do you smoke?” “I started when I was younger.” “Why don’t you quit?” It’s a habit.” “Are you going to stop?” “Sometime.” That conversation repeated itself several times over the next few months with some variation incorporating further questions: “Who is the Surgeon General” and “What is ‘your health’?” and “Why is it dangerous?” and “What happens to your health?” Eventually I retreated from questioning my mother’s decision to smoke as her attitude toward my questions had eventually grown from indulging my new curiosity to a hostile order to “Stop asking questions!”
Whether she realized it or not, my mother taught me two lessons through her responses and subsequent actions: 1) she enjoyed smoking more than she worried about her health; and 2) choosing to engage in activities detrimental or potentially detrimental is permissible. Though disturbed that my mother would choose to engage in an activity she readily admitted was bad for her, I readily accepted the images I had of my mother smoking did not mesh with the dangerous warning from the Surgeon General printed on the pack of Virginia Slims 100s, Menthol.