Words the wings I didn't know I had

NTSAKO MKHABELA tells how she struggled with words initially, but once she had mastered reading, they became her greatest friends

WHAT makes me feel most at ease in my skin is also the thing that grabs hold of me so tightly that my spirit is trapped by the impermeability of my shell. Words have been both my friends and my toughest adversaries.

It is my last day of school and as my grandmother opens my report card, I am afraid that it will confirm that I am dumb. I sit in the darkness watching dust dance around her bedroom and try to read my school books in an attempt to rectify what my teacher has written in my report card.

I realise that the B sound on my Zulu tongue is pronounced like a V in the Tsonga school I have been in all year. This may be a rather late epiphany that invites a colony of butterflies to take hold of my stomach.

In Standard 3 I have to read the same page that refuses to let me in. I am reading my first English book by myself: Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.

I go over the first page and cannot figure out what this boy and his father are doing. It makes no sense to my 10-year-old mind.

They are poaching pheasants – are those like chickens? The teacher, whom I have not had the courage to talk to yet, wants me to read from the book and my breath feels cut short, I cannot spit the words out.

I learn later that year that I have dyslexia and it seems I will never be reconciled with reading.

Love David was the next book in Standard 4 – David and his sister with their one-legged dog. I felt like that one-legged dog.

Then my cousin gave me his copy of Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry and in it I met a black girl from the American South who looked like me. I felt like that knock-kneed girl who played with boys. I found the familiar and then discovered the strange, yet uncanny, in books.

My mother bought me a book of poetry by African poets when I was 13. I was angry at my mother, she knew I was not a good reader yet she insisted on giving me books.

I opened the pages and read the first poem there, "Mirror, mirror on the wall who will answer freedom's call stained with blood of revered King where Medgar Evers fell". That was the first line I read right through without being forced to read and I found poetry, metaphor and song.

Words have become my greatest friends, my companions.

Becoming a writer was an inevitable part of this journey with words. The Mzansi Spelling Bee was bound to be born through me.

I know the torment of a word that will not come in the correct sequence and the absolute ecstasy of a phrase that unfolds in ways that reveal the spirit to the self.

Words have been butterflies in my stomach, a punch to my gut, the hold on my breath and the wings I did not know I had.

Being told stories and being read to helps children develop the rich storehouse of language, grammar and vocabulary they need to bring to texts when learning to read and write.

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