Can you remember learning to read? I can't. Not exactly. A-B-C letters. Signs, yes: ICE CREAM, GAS, OIL. Jack ran up the hill, and Jill fell down the hill. Poor Jill. The cow jumping over the moon; I liked the cow for being so athletic. Brave Little Red Riding Hood. I don't remember how I felt about the wolf. The first word I learned to spell - and it seemed like a long word - was "Snoozer." That was my first puppy's name.
As I advanced, I read all about the Rover Boys. These kids ran around in a glamorous red, 12-cylinder race car catching bandits. Saving the bank's safe was a big story. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Court, read aloud the entire story of Heidi, a little girl who lived in the mountains of Switzerland. With goats. One of the goats ate her hat, I think. I may be remembering incorrectly, but I remember Heidi.
This complex skill we all use every day is something we enjoy without a thought. But reading gives us everything: the wide world of the Bible, Shakespeare, and newspapers with editorials to rant about, as well as exit and entrance signs (important to know the difference).
Reading also gives us access to writers from Tolstoy to P.G. Wodehouse. And don't forget the phone book (poor plot).
I thought about all this when I was visiting a computer expert I know who is 11 years old.
I wondered what he read, and I wanted to ask him, gently. At the time, he was reading e-mail. On the screen appeared the sentence: "What do you get if you cross a ballpoint pen and a sprinkler?"
Garrett scratched his blond head. While he pondered, I glanced around his mostly neat room. There were books, including the inevitable Harry Potter series. There was also a nice dictionary his father had given him. But the most surprising thing was a printed-out portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt, the famous Rough Rider, pinned up alongside Spider-Man, Bobby Orr, Tom Brady, and Microsoft's Bill Gates.
"I found Roosevelt on the Internet. He's cool," Garrett pronounced. "He was a war hero and president and everything."
"A man of action," I ventured.
"Yep. A hunter and builder of the Panama Canal.... Fountain pen. A fountain pen," he said suddenly. "That's what you get when you cross a ballpoint and a sprinkler."
"I'll bet President Roosevelt couldn't have answered any quicker," I said. "He was a fast reader, read a book in an evening."
While Garrett admired Roosevelt's riding up San Juan Hill in Cuba and winning a battle, the president's reading habits made an impression on him, too.
His computer screen glowed again: "What do you get if you cross a daisy and orchestral music?" Garrett turned to me. I bluffed and went on about how Roosevelt read a lot of history.
Garrett frowned back at the screen. Then his face brightened as he shouted, "Flower arrangements!"
Flowers and Roosevelt confused me for a moment. But Garrett was giving the answer to "Daisies and music."
"Now, as I was saying about Roosevelt's books..." I was getting a little boring, but I knew that reading leads to writing - something that computer experts need. And Garrett was all for being a computer programmer.
He brightened again, talking about President Roosevelt. I noticed those books scattered around his room. He wasn't always at the keyboard.
We finished our visit with another important puzzle, and we wondered just how quickly Roosevelt could have answered it: How could Roosevelt tell that an elephant was a world traveler?
By the travel stickers on his trunk!
Easy for Garrett ... and Roosevelt.
• Monday, Feb. 21, is Presidents' Day in the United States.