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Reading holds key to a child's imagination

Some friends and I were sitting around talking awhile back when someone asked, "What is the most erotic movie scene you've ever seen?" Choices poured forth _ glimpses from Last Tango in Paris, Body Heat and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The best one, however, came from an older member of our group: she chose the scene in Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler scoops Scarlett O'Hara into his arms and strides up the stairs two at a time to _ who knows what? As the scene fades, she pointed out, our imaginations take over, and our imaginations can conjure up images more titillating than all the squirming, sweating bodies ever captured on celluloid.

The difference between the Rhett Butler fan and the others in the group was that she was born before the Television Takeover. She was raised on books and radio, just as I was. We read words and listened to dialogue, and our own minds painted the pictures.

Maybe that's why Superman, the Movie and Batman left me cold. No Hollywood gimmick could compare with my vision of Superman leaping tall buildings or soaring to China in the blink of an eye.

Thursday night I went to an awards ceremony for the Hernando County school system's most improved readers. Teachers had chosen one out of every 300 kids whose reading skills had improved the most since September. Forty-two students of all ages _ from tiny Maygan Badger, barely 6, to adult Martin Bazaldus _ were given certificates and prizes to recognize their achievements.

Jean Ferris, the president of the Hernando County Reading Council, which sponsored the ceremony, told a particularly appropriate story.

It was about a teacher who, in an effort to get her young pupils enthusiastic about reading, vowed to start each day by reading to them. The first day of school, as she turned the first page, a youngster stopped her. "Aren't you going to show us the pictures?" he wondered. There are no pictures, the teacher explained.

"If there aren't any pictures," the boy asked, "how are we to know what the people in the book look like?"

Teachers say that's typical for a TV kid. Because they've always had a picture to go with the words, they have a hard time visualizing spoken descriptions.

A major goal of the reading program is to get kids to start reading words and thinking pictures, rather than having everything drawn for them. The ability to envision things is the bedrock of creativity. After all, every chair, every automobile, every rocket _ in fact, everything that's ever been invented _ once existed as a thought in somebody's mind.

I lament the passing of radio shows. What can compare to sprawling on the floor, ear pressed to the speaker, listening to I Love a Mystery and conjuring up Jack, Doc and Reggie clattering through underground tunnels. Comedian Jack Benny's old shtick, where he went down to the cellar to check out his vault, was never as funny on television as it was on radio.

Better than radio is being read to by mom, dad, sister, brother or a favorite aunt.

My favorite nights were when my mother ironed my bedsheets to get them warm, then wrapped herself in a blanket and sat by my bed reading The Bobbsey Twins or Raggedy Ann and Andy.

As soon as I could read a few words, mom subscribed to Little Lulu comic books for me. Today's educators say well-written and carefully chosen comic books still are a good way to get kids to read.

We lived in the country, where the high points of the day were the arrival of the morning mail and the evening newspaper _ real incentives to learn to read. Trips to the library to pick up the latest Nancy Drew mystery or Cherry Ames, student nurse, yarn were a weekly habit.

When I reached junior high school, I joined my civic activist father in his near-nightly ritual of composing fiery letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

It was no accident that I grew up to be an avid reader and writer and that my life's work has turned out to be writing editorial letters to the readers. I was trained to do so almost from birth.

It was no surprise to me that speakers at Thursday's event told parents the best way to get kids to read is to make interesting reading materials handy and to be readers themselves, to serve as good examples.

As I watched the kids proudly march to the front of the room to get their reading certificates Thursday night, I wished for a moment that there had been awards for the beaming moms and dads who quite obviously had a hand in their kids' success.

But on second thought, I felt sure that the happy, grinning kids and the success they will no doubt achieve if they continue to improve was all the reward any parent there really wanted.