Laura Roettiger: InHERview
But Laura Roettiger can. Throughout our Skype chat, the conversation turned again and again to books. Of course, that makes sense for any author, but reading was more than just a side activity for this mother of three and former teacher. It directed some of her most important life choices… and those of her mother.
“My mom dropped out of college to put my dad through law school,” Laura explains. “When she went back to college and I was about three, she’d have out her big textbooks and I’d say, ‘When are you going to put those away so you can read to me?’ And so she quit.”
The statement sounds so simple, yet we both know that any decision to put our needs on hold is a layered one. When Laura speaks of her mother, her voice oozes respect and love. She recognizes the sacrifice her mother made. But it was more than just her mother’s willingness to leave college behind at the request of a toddler that Laura remembers fondly.
“My mom always made reading a priority,” she says. “Her reading to me is one of the biggest influences on my life.”
“Did you have a favorite book that you read together?” I ask.
“No… not really. Even if not the specific books, I remember the act of loving to read.” Laura smiles as she recounts the different ways her mom made reading a priority. Sometimes, they’d read books aloud to one another. Sometimes, side-by-side. Other times, Laura came home to find her mother curled up with her own book, asking to be left alone for another twenty minutes—or however long it took—until she’d finished her chapter. She prioritized her family. But she prioritized reading, too. And she passed those priorities down to her daughter.
“When I had my kids, my mom and I spent all kinds of time together, several days a week.” Laura talks about her father’s long work hours respectfully, understanding his sacrifice, too. “She was very refined and sort of conservative. Clean and neat all the time. When my kids were little, my mom would come over a lot. She would just come in—she didn’t need to ring the bell. At that time, I just had my son and he was super active all the time… but he could sit and be read to for like an hour at a time. He would sit completely attentive for books. Well, I was reading to him and she walked in, and she started looking around the room at all the dust and the dirt on the floor. She kept a perfect, immaculate house at all times. She didn’t say anything. When we were done reading, she had come to the conclusion that my reading to her grandchildren was more important than the dirt.”
Laura laughs at the memory, fully aware of the common threads that tie her so closely to her mother. Reading meant more to Laura than cleaning. And it meant more to her mother than criticizing a dirty house.
“So, many of your childhood memories revolve around reading?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Laura agrees. She explains that it’s not only her childhood memories that revolve around reading, but some of her most pivotal adult memories do, too.
Laura recalls a phonics instruction that she and her mother used to cut out of the Sunday Tribune comics’ section each week, called “Short Cuts to Reading You Can Teach Your Child.” She and her mother would cut them out and turn them into a book, which is how she learned to read at the age of four. “I wasn’t forced to read,” Laura says, “I wanted to read.” Eventually, when she went back to school for her teaching degree, she found a book containing the same Sunday comics she had embraced as a child, eventually working them into her curriculum. “None of the other teachers wanted to use it because it was ‘old school.’” Laura laughs, remembering how few students were in their 40’s, as she was, when she started school.
She then recounts a story about how she was able to use another phonics-based source, Readingatoz.com books, to help two Spanish-speaking, seventh-grade girls who didn’t speak a word of English.
“I worked with them every day. And it was great, because there were two of them—so they had each other.” Laura explains that she started with the basics: colors, shapes, and zoo animals. By the time they hit the eighth grade, they were reading Of Mice and Men with their classmates.
“That was definitely another pivotal moment for me,” Laura says. “I read the book to them after they read it, so I was able to help them with their pronunciation. It was a huge success story for me.” Her face beams with pride.
“And how old were you at that time?” I ask.
“Oh, that was when I was in my 50’s. It was toward the end of my teaching career.” Laura’s face turns sober, and she asks if she can go back a bit.
“Of course,” I say.
Laura takes a deep breath, blowing out slowly. “So in 1999, we were at our house in Wisconsin, on Lake Geneva. When I was growing up, my mom, my sister, and I would spend our summers up there and my dad would come up on the weekends – and sometimes during the week, also – but it was like we’d move there two days after school let out and go back two days before school started. So anyway, in 1999, we went for a long weekend at the end of the summer. Mom seemed really tired.” Laura’s voice cracks and I wish I could hug her through the computer.
“She was coughing a lot, but she was supposed to do a 100-mile bike ride that coming Saturday, and then the following week they were supposed to leave to go to India, I think. She went to the doctor and was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. They did other tests and it was in her brain, and in her bones…and she died six months later.” As if feeling her pain, Laura’s Goldendoodle plants his paws on her shoulder and kisses her face.
We’ve all experienced pain. These are the moments, the memories, that bond us together. That help us survive. Heartbreak is easier when we don’t have to experience it alone. I share that the woman who raised me also died six months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Laura nods and wipes her tears.
“How did that change the world for you?” I ask.
Laura blows the air out of her lungs. “I was actually looking into going to law school, before she got sick. After I graduated from Northwestern, I’d worked at Continental Bank and I’d gone to business school at night, because the bank paid for it.” It was a perk, she explained, but she didn’t find it fulfilling. She’d dropped to one class when she became pregnant, then quit altogether after the birth of her first child. But once her kids were grown, law school seemed the logical choice.
“My dad was a lawyer and a lot of my friends were lawyers, so I thought maybe I’d like it better than business school. But when Mom died, I had a year when I could barely get through the day.” Laura explains that during this time, a job became available as the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Church in Winnetka, where she was a member. “I discovered that I liked writing curriculum, but the hour with the kids was my favorite part of the job.”
Just like that, a teacher was born. Instead of going to law school, Laura decided to get a Master’s in teaching. She sums up the reasoning behind her decision perfectly.
“I realized that this was something I’d enjoy doing, whereas law school was something I could do to support myself.”
While at National Louis University in Evanston, a few teachers influenced Laura more than any others. She met the first during Practicum.
“I had a teacher who was so giving and so supportive of me, and really encouraged me,” Laura explains. “Then, I was with a first-grade teacher who was an excellent teacher, but she wasn’t collaborative with me. She didn’t value what I brought into the classroom.” Laura explained that both approaches helped mold her into the kind of teacher she wanted to be.
Laura then describes how she met three kindergarten teachers during her student teaching experience who directly influenced her tremendously. “They all really made me part of the team. We would get together once a week and do big-picture planning. That was wonderful.” The memories spread joy across Laura’s face. “They were a really important piece of me, as who I became as a teacher.” It was this group, Laura explains, that taught her the importance of collaboration and sharing. This group that inspired her to create libraries for classrooms without books, when she became a teacher.
This group, along with her mother, who turned her into a children’s author.
Now, at 59 years old, Laura is experiencing the joy of delivering reading to children through a different vehicle. In the past, she’s read to them. She’s taught them. And now, she’s writing for them.
I can’t think of a more fitting literary circle.
Laura’s picture book debut, ALIANA REACHES FOR THE MOON, hit shelves in February, 2019 and can be purchased here:
Aliana loves observing things in nature. When she notices how bright the light from the full moon shines into her room, she’s inspired to learn about the moon and spends time experimenting with light and reflection to create a surprise for her little brother.