Blood, Sweat & Hooked on Phonics

I was born and initially grew up in a bilingual country. My Canadian public school system sought to make its students proficient in both French and English by high school graduation. French was taught from kindergarten to sixth grade and English from six grade through twelfth. The problem was that my dad was transferred when I was nine, and though I had French proficiency at a third-grader’s level, I was effectively illiterate from the perspective of my new, all English school.

Elementary school in a new country was difficult enough without having to simultaneously catch up and keep up. It took an incredibly difficult couple of years for me to reclaim my literacy. I was incredibly lucky however. When my dad’s company arranged the paperwork for us to immigrate, they were unable to acquire a work visa for my mother. She decided to devote her time to tutoring my brother and me after hours.

To this day, I remember coming home from school, completing my assigned homework to the best of my ability, and then sitting with my mom at the kitchen table for hours. My nights were largely occupied with hooked on phonics, supplemental workbooks, and educational games. As any third grader would, I resented the extra homework, but I hated feeling stupid more, and so I worked my butt off.

Over the months, I struggled my way to literacy, graduating from games and primers to picture books, and eventually working my way up to novels. My mom gifted to me my love for reading through patient hours, frustrated tears, endless encouragement and enthusiasm. Though hesitant to give us toys, treats, and video games, my mom was ever generous with books. I could have as many as I could read. The library became an awesome place.

Eventually I caught up to my peers, but the momentum I had built up in my struggle carried me forward, past many of my classmates. My mom’s work permit was eventually granted, and she returned to a day job. By that time, however, working on my reading was no longer extra homework. I loved the stories and the adventure. I loved to read.

I never knew how much my mom kept from those early years until I was packing everything I owned to move halfway across the country. A few nights before I was scheduled to leave, with most of my life packed away in boxes for storage or for travel, my mom found me and showed me a giant Tupperware box, grayish from years of dust dulling the maroon of the plastic. Together, we opened it and inside I found not only the standard detritus of a young child’s life, but those months of workbooks. More importantly, I found stacks of stories written by a barely literate me. I thought that writing was a passion I had picked up in high school and college, but she showed me that I have been writing quite literally since I learned to read. Some of the stories were even in French.

I credit my mother with giving me the gift of literacy. Sure, I worked for it. I shed blood, sweat and tears, but without her patience and love, I would not have the passion for storytelling that is my calling. It is because of her that I can be a writer at all.

Thanks mom.

About Nathan Barra

Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to urban fantasy and soft science fiction in both his reading and writing, though he has been known to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” He is an active blogger and posts twice weekly at Nathan is always up for a good conversation, so please drop him a line through his contact page, or write on his Facebook wall (

2 responses on “Blood, Sweat & Hooked on Phonics

  1. Sue Ranscht

    How different your story would have been had your mom obtained a work permit when you first moved. You still would have faced trial by fire, but would the pride of a 9 year old have been enough to lift you above the flames? Loving support and encouragement kept you on track; you earned the confidence and self-esteem your writing shows through your own accomplishment. Thanks for sharing your tale of quiet, hard won triumph.

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