As part of its special report on reading in Hillsborough County schools, the Tampa Bay Times surveyed more than 70 students at four middle and high schools to describe their first memories of reading and how they feel about reading now. In addition, a group at Durant High School participated in interviews on the subject.

While it is often impossible to remember learning how to read, most of the students had happy memories of their early experiences with books.

They were proud the first time they could write their names. They enjoyed story time in kindergarten. They spoke fondly of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. They ate green eggs and ham at school after reading the Dr. Seuss book by the same name.

“When we were younger, it was a lot easier to just pick up a book and read,” said Angel Gonzalez of Durant. “In second grade my teacher took us all to the library and we went to the book fair and she told us to go get something that we like, so I got a basketball book because that’s my hobby, basketball, and the book was just amazing. I read that thing like 24 times.”

Gonzalez, who is now in a reading class to complete his requirements for a high school diploma, said his study habits deteriorated when he reached middle and high school. “I was just following people,” he said. “I took the wrong route, and I just gave up on school.”

Some of the Durant students said reading became more difficult in the later years of elementary school, and as they entered middle school. They were given articles that did not hold their interest; and tests that filled them with stress.

“The books got harder and they wanted us to read higher level stuff,” said Chase Lingo.

About half the high school-aged students said they read when reading is assigned to them at school. Outside of those assignments, they read texts, emails and captions on anime cartoons.

Those who were assigned extra reading classes to improve their skills described the need to pass tests so they would not have to take reading any more.

Some complained about eye strain when they are asked to read on computers or other digital devices.

“I’m not going to lie,” said student Markeirionna McDuffy. “Reading, it makes me sleepy. I’ll sit at the computer and I’ll read it and I’ll answer some of the questions. But after a few minutes, I’ll be sleepy and I won’t want to read."

Others said the frequent testing diminishes students’ enjoyment of reading.

“I see the tests are getting harder and harder and it’s harder to get high scores, so a lot of people are getting disappointed,” said Elian Ramirez. “They give up too easily. It’s like a way to stop reading. So it’s just on school sometimes, because it’s just too much pressure and knowing you’re not doing so good, you give up.”

Senior Felicia Mitchell became so discouraged after years of not quite passing her reading tests that she began to believe she was not cut out for reading.

“It just made me feel like I didn’t fit in with academic learning,” said Mitchell, an accomplished bowler who played soccer and basketball as well. “I thought, some people are more athletic than academic, and vice versa.”

As for reading, she said, “I only did it if it was necessary in a class to do. I didn’t complain about it, but I did it.”

Mitchell needed to complete the reading requirements for her high school diploma so she could take advantage of a bowling scholarship to college. She got the score she needed in October on the SAT, which can be substituted for the state’s reading test. This August, she plans to attend the University of Northwestern Ohio.

Reading is still not something she would do for pleasure, she said. “I’d rather go outside.”