The Power of Childhood Reading or My Irrational Fear

On Friday, I received several phone calls, emails and text messages, asking if I was OK.  There was a tsunami, my loved ones had heard, and they wanted to check on me.

Let’s be clear: I do not live in Japan.  I do not live in Hawaii.  I do not even live in California, where swells reached six to eight feet.  I live in New Jersey, well away from the coast.

So why the familial concern?  Because I am irrationally afraid of tsunamis.

That’s actually misleading.  My fear of tsunamis is entirely rational–it is completely logical to be afraid of water rushing at you.  My fear is irrational because a) I live in New Jersey, not anywhere that can legitimately be hit by a tsunami and b) my fear stems from a traumatic childhood reading experience.

I was lucky enough to attend an excellent elementary school, where I read some really terrific things at a young age.  In the second grade, the novel that my class tackled was The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck.  The Big Wave was our read-aloud book–we read it together on Fridays.  It told the story of Japanese best friends .  Kino’s family are farmers, Jiya’s are fishermen yet they manage to maintain their relationship.  People in their town know about the “big wave,” but no one expects it to hit in their lifetime.  Of course, a tsunami hits about halfway through the book.  I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that tragedy ensues and one of the boys is left an orphan.

Now, I’m not sure who thought this book was appropriate for second graders (and it’s still part of the second grade curriculum in NYC–I know because I taught it many years later), but the book horrified me.  We learned about the science of tsunamis–where they could happen, where they couldn’t happen.  Clearly this was supposed to assuage my fears.  Tsunamis are nearly scientifically impossible on the East coast of the United States (I say nearly–years later I would learn about mega-tsunamis).  But it didn’t make me feel better at all.  For years, I have been plagued by nightmares of tsunamis.  At the beach during low tide, I get nervous even to this day.  Is the water receding abnormally far?  That crest on the horizon, that’s just a regular wave, right?

The worst part about my fear is how magnetically drawn I am to all things tsunami.  I watch the Discovery channel specials.  I pored over the coverage of the East Asian tsunami of 2005.  I’ve been consumed by images from Japan.

So to anyone who says that reading doesn’t matter, that reading in elementary school isn’t powerful, I respectfully beg to differ.  Reading, especially childhood reading, is powerful enough to stir emotions in me even now, nearly 20 years later.

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