Twelve sets of attentive eyes were glued to the book that I held in my hand. “And then the very hungry caterpillar age through three plums. But he was still hungry,” I read upside down. After a few pages they knew that the little caterpillar would be looking at them from the backside of the page after he had eaten through the apple or the four oranges or the five strawberries, but their outbursts of anticipation made it seem like it was the biggest surprise in the world. When the caterpillar “wasn’t so little anymore” after eating through cakes, sweets and sausages, they giggled and said in Turkmen, “now he’s a fat caterpillar.” I was translating only a few words, but a full comprehension of one of my favorite children’s books wasn’t my goal. I wanted my students to enjoy the experience of having a book read to them.
As a child my room was filled with books and by a young age I could already tell any interested party about my favorite books. I liked books. I enjoyed getting lost in a book and letting myself be consumed by the story. My parents always read to me, and when my sister was born I would read to her whether she liked it or not. I was instilled with a respect for books and with an understanding that books were fun.
My first encounter with a book in Turkmenistan was in the toilet. I am not talking about a magazine rack with a leisurely selection to be enjoyed while pondering life on the pot. No, this book had been destroyed. What had been a Russian novel in a former life currently had half of its pages missing. The missing pages could be found in the waste bucket, crumpled up after past toilet goers had used them and disposed of them. This book was my toilet paper. Looking at the destroyed book I felt an internal dilemma begin on an almost moral level. I had been brought up to appreciate literature, and here were the remains of Soviet books staring at me while I squatted on the toilet. What kind of culture rips up a book for toilet paper? My first encounter with a toilet paper book was only the beginning of me trying to comprehend how little most Turkmen value books.
Most houses I have been in have no book shelves or books at all. There is always a satellite dish and a television. Most of my students admit to never read more than their school textbooks, if they even bother to read those. Parents don’t read to their children and there is a lack of books in the Turkmen language. I remember how much I enjoyed being read to as a child, and it makes me sad to think about all the children in this country who will never be read to. Those stories gave me creative inspiration. I got to glimpse into a various worlds. I was so full of different stories that I intuitively understood that there was always a unique way to look at life. As a result of growing up in a culture that doesn’t value creative expression and literature, my students have a hard time thinking multilaterally. They find it difficult to approach something abstractly, without being dictated each step. I have realized that reading to children begins as a bonding experience between child and parent yet the effects of it continue to influence you for the rest of your life. I read stories to my students, all of my students, and with out fail they are always more attentive during story time than any other time in class. If they don’t understand the words, they are fixated on the pictures. If they understand the story, I can hear them translate it to themselves in whispers as I read. I walk around the classroom to each desk so that the students can get a close look at the pictures. Reading can be fun, I hint at them, sometimes subtly and other times not so much. Sit back and listen to me read. “Let me tell you the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” I say, and story time begins.