Wednesday, January 28, 2009

R.I.P. John Updike

There is a point in every person's life when something just clicks. For most of us, these events primarily took place in school. They range from the first time you made it through the times tables to the first time you looked at a sentence in a foreign language and understood what it said. As a kid with a learning disability, I really cherished these moments, and most of mine took place at St. Joseph's Prep Seminary in Princeton New Jersey.

The Vincentian Fathers are great teachers, and the fact that there were only 50 kids in the whole school meant that we all got individual attention. It was there that I was first convinced that while I'd never be a math wiz, I could pass algebra. It was at St. Joe's that I first started to believe that I could learn Latin, and Spanish. And it was in those limestone buildings that I first started to believe that I could love to read. One of my biggest challenges as a kid was being able to read a book with any kind of attention, let alone a short story or chapter of a textbook.

Then in the late months of 1990 we got an assignment from Mr. McCullough to find and read a short story that we liked. I spent a few hours in the library trying to find something that resonated with me, and if truth be told, I was also trying to find something very short. I stumbled upon a collection of short stories by John Updike, and was taken by "A&P" which met all my requirements.

Not only was it very short, but it was also easy for me to read and visualize, which was one of my main difficulties in the past. I felt like I knew were Sammy was coming from, and I could identify with what he was feeling watching Queenie and her friends walk barefoot through the supermarket. Plus, the store was set in beach side suburb of Boston in the early 60's, and my father was from Revere Massachusetts and was in high school in hte early 60's.

I read the story over and over again, finding that the first person account and the conversational tone opened this story up to me. On its face it was a banal 10 minute slice of a teenage kids life, wherein he gawks at a few hot girls and makes a bad choice which is ultimately unrewarding to him. What I read was so much more, though. I could easily be Sammy, and he was real, believable and relatable. I didn't want to stop reading it, and for the 14 year old version of me, that was a pretty big deal.

In the years after that, I would find new favorite things to read, and reread, but John Updike's slice of life short story was where it all started. It was the moment reading clicked for me, and I've never been the same. Updike was on of the nations most prolific writers over the last half century, and will probably be best remembered for "The Witches of Eastwick" and "Rabbit, Run" but I will always be thankful that he gave us "A&P". If you have a few minutes to spare, you can read it here, or make your way to the library or bookstore.


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