I didn’t go to kindergarten.
The year I should have gone – 1979 – was the last year kindergarten wasn’t a legal requirement in Vermont, and circumstances being what they were, it made more sense for my parents to keep me home until first grade.
When the time came, I started school with a plethora of social deficits, a heaping helping of anxiety, and some academic gaps. One advantage I had, though, was books.
My folks made sure I had plenty of books around when I was little, and by the time I entered first grade, I knew how to read, despite the lack of schooling. A steady diet of bedtime stories and time spent marveling at the pages of storybooks make a huge difference for a kid.
Reading ended up being my ticket to making friends and getting out of my comfort zone of shyness. When I wasn’t freaking out about being away from home or struggling to figure out why two plus two did not, in fact, equal five, I was helping classmates with their books. By spending time with peers, giving an assist with their reading skill development, I started making friends and building a little self-confidence.
By the time the second quarter had started, I was feeling a bit better about school in general.
That’s when a dog wearing a deerstalker and holding a magnifying glass showed up.
Fundraisers were a foreign concept to me back then. So was multiple sclerosis. I was introduced to both at the same time when Mrs. Boyce handed out forms for the MS Read-a-thon.
“MS is a disease that makes people’s bodies work improperly,” she explained. “Sometimes they go blind, sometimes their arms or legs don’t work right, and sometimes they can’t get out of bed.”
It sounded like a terrible disease, but I was relieved as Mrs. Boyce continued.
“We can help people with MS by reading books,” she said. “You can get sponsors to donate money for every book you read or every page you read, and that money will be used to help find a cure.”
This was amazing.
I could spend time reading and help people dealing with a terrible disease I’d never heard of. Win-win.
Plus, the read-a-thon had the coolest mascot ever: a basset hound dressed up like Sherlock Holmes, except he was wearing excellent red Chuck Taylors!
His name was Mystery Sleuth (M.S.; get it?), and by participating in the read-a-thon, we could get an iron-on patch with a picture of him on it, along with a bunch of other prizes.
I read like a madman, and I hit up every relative we had and every other adult I could muster the courage to ask. Ma and Dad helped me keep track of my paperwork, and before I knew it, the read-a-thon was over.
I don’t remember how many books I read, but it was a lot. I want to say that I was the top reader in my class, but I can’t do that with 100 percent confidence. I do know I was one of the top readers in the school, though.
I don’t remember what I got for prizes aside from that patch (a copy of which I just found and purchased on eBay) and the certificate, in which the Mystery Sleuth declared I was “hereby recognized officially as a Mystery Sleuth for completing all requirements of the MS Read-a-thon program, and helping me solve the mystery of Multiple Sclerosis.”
The memory of walking to the front of the room and being handed that certificate is as vivid as receiving my high school and college diplomas. I was so proud. My mother put the certificate in a frame for me, and I kept it in my room forever, even when I was too cool for such things.
That’s the magical thing about being a Mystery Sleuth, I guess. You’re so cool that you can never be too cool. I mean, when I got married ten years ago, I wore red Chuck Taylors, just like my man, Mystery Sleuth. Never too cool.
Remembering the challenges of first grade and the fun I had participating in the MS Read-a-thon is something I hold dear for several reasons, and it’s one of the things that keeps me writing. The hope that my work will someday be a comfort for others to in the same way the books I had were for me, that maybe I’ll get published and my books will end up in someone’s pile of read-a-thon books.
The MS Read-a-thon is special for another important reason, though.
Years and years after first grade, I had a frantic drive home from the dry-cleaner I was working at. I’d gotten a call from dad, asking if I could leave early to talk to him and mom. My parents are the most thoughtful and considerate people in the world, and asking something like that meant serious stuff was going down.
Ma had been sick for a while, unable to work on the farm anymore. Losing her sight from time to time, unable to use her arms and legs, not even able to get out of bed. She’d gone to see a specialist that day for some test results.
When I entered the living room, Ma was laying on the couch, covered in blankets because she was so cold, even though it was a warm day. Dad was crying. That was my signal to start crying, too, even though I didn’t know what was going on. Even as a young adult, seeing your father cry shakes your foundations in a profound way.
The results showed that Ma had multiple sclerosis. It was relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), the most common type of MS. The diagnosis meant a lifetime of dealing with sudden neurological attacks that could involve previous symptoms or something completely new. Then the attacks would stop, and she’d recover to some extent.
I laid in bed and cried so hard that night, thinking about Ma and Mystery Sleuth, how excited I was as a kid to read books and help people with MS, how there really wasn’t a damn thing I could do to help Ma now. Especially something as simple as read a book.
Laying there, though, I made a choice. Ma had told me she was going to fight. That she wasn’t going to take the diagnosis as a death sentence. So why should I take it as a signal of defeat for something I did so many years ago? I decided that maybe that money I raised help figure out ways to treat people with RRMS or maybe gave researchers further insight into how it works.
More than 20 years later, Ma is still kicking multiple sclerosis’s ass, regardless of the neurological curveballs it throws her way. She’s an example to me and my kids, a lesson in determination, endurance, and patience. And I’m still here reading and writing, trying to be as cool as the Mystery Sleuth.
Oh yeah! And the MS Read-a-thon is still around, too. To find out more about it, visit https://www.msreadathon.ie/.