The lasting influence of some gifts ends when the gift is unwrapped; the lasting influence of other gifts exceeds a lifetime, affecting future generations. The gift of memorable childhood Christmases remains part of my personal and professional life today.
In the early ’50s, my Lionel model train set fulfilled every boy’s dream of building a railroad empire, and the lessons I learned in electricity and basic maintenance taught me many home repair skills that I apply today. I designed my own village complete with housing, post office, water tower, railroad crossing and trestle that directed the train through the mountains and out of town. My train platform was my “Levittown” years before James Michener wrote about it.
My first chemistry set at Christmas satisfied a curiosity to discover, explore and experiment — educational skills I strive to achieve in the classes I teach today. Similarly, an Erector Set fulfilled a need to create, connect and construct functional miniature structures. Innovation remains a priority in my professional life today.
But the gift that discovered the reader within was the "Reader’s Digest Teen-Age Treasury," a collection of stories specifically selected for 13- to 15-year-olds. Each of the four volumes (Challenge, Endeavor, World Wide and Action) contained dozens of stories that begged to be read.
On that Christmas Day more than 60 years ago, the trains came to a halt, the chemicals were stored and construction was suspended. I discovered an adventure and began an obsession with the world of reading. For the first time in my life, I experienced a compelling desire to read — while waiting for dinner, riding in the car and under the covers with a flashlight before falling asleep.
Early that Christmas morning, I selected my first story, “How My Dad Made Me a Switch-Hitter” by Mickey Mantle. For the moment, I lived in Mickey’s world. I learned the relationship among dreams, determination and a relentless work ethic. The remainder of that day and the immediate days that followed, I learned other lessons and explored other worlds with stories such as “In the Eye of the Hurricane,” ”Speediest Woman in the World,” “The Amazing Amazon,” “Is There Life on Other Planets,” “No Horse, No Wife, No Mustache” and “The Spirit of St. Louis.” These stories about topics such as rainforests, space, West Point and Charles Lindbergh sparked an interest to read dozens of related books over a lifetime.
In the middle ’60s when I began teaching, I frequently read aloud my ”Teen-Age Treasury” to my students at Nether Providence Junior High School. Students enjoyed the stories as much as I did. I continued reading those stories to my Sun Valley students in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Those stories were so engaging they became my “survival lesson,” the go-to activity that would settle a potentially disruptive class. I learned the soothing effect of the reading voice on attention-seeking students.
That Christmas gift from my parents that discovered the reader awakened reading interest in me and generations of students in my classes. That Christmas gift created a reading thirst that resulted in reading obsessions with traditional authors such as Hemingway, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Jefferson and, more recently, Walter Isaacson, Malcolm Gladwell, David McCullough, John Medina and Daniel Pink.