Portrait Of A Literate American
Actual Photo, Doing Something With A Trowel In The Garden
January 16, 2005
How is it possible to spend twelve years in school and not be able to read? How? It is beyond me. A sheet of dry wall would be reading in less time.
Start at the beginning. The alphabet consists of all of twenty-six letters, as mysterious as potatoes. Whoopee-do. How long can it take to learn two dozen little squiggles?
A story: When my elder daughter was barely two, my wife and I came back from a junket to Russia. We were on the sofa looking at a coffee-table book from Moscow when Macon waddled in and began hollering, “Bee! Bee!” Thinking that a wasp or some related monster had invaded our sacred domestic precincts, I went into protective-male mode and prepared to make war on the beast. No wasp. No bee. Perhaps the child was delusional, a paranoid schizophrenic.
Well, no. She was looking at a balalaika on the front of the book which looked like a lower-case B. "Hmmm," I thought with my accustomed preternatural perceptiveness. The kid appears to be on to something. She was.
I got a set of those magnetic stick-em refrigerator plastic letters and began showing them to her for five minutes a day, about all the attention span she then had. Before reaching twenty-six months, she knew all of them, upper and lower case. It is true that her pronunciational mastery lagged her alphabetic grasp. You may not know of the letter “Bubble Dew.” It exists.
At three, she was reading. Yes, it was, “Billy chased the cat up the tree,” not “the eschatological significance of the kerygma.” Still, it was reading. It was what millions of kids who have finished school cannot do, even at the cat-and-tree level. She thought it was splendid fun. It did not occur to her that any effort was involved. Of course Daddy was making an enormous fuss over her, which was not a discouragement. Daddy is that way about his girls.
How did I bring about this onset of literacy? The same way I later did with her sister, who also was reading well before kindergarten. I told her that c said “kuh,” that a said “a” and t said “tuh.” Kuh-a-tuh. Cat. And look here, Pumpkin, r says “err,” and if you put it in front of "at" you get err-a-tuh, rat. Ain’t that something?
She agreed that it was. Indeed she received all of this occult lore with attention and no visible puzzlement. It quickly dawned on her that you could string these letter things together to express interesting thoughts. Soon she could sound out words she didn’t remotely understand and, when the multitudinous exceptions and peculiarities of English intruded, she simply learned them.
I don’t know. About a month.
I didn’t regard this as a miracle, because it wasn’t one. Kids have been learning to read practically forever. They are absorptive creatures, awash in curiosity. A couple of dozen letters, associated sounds, retentive memories, and voila! There is nothing to it. It is easy.
And yet somehow, inconceivably, many children never learn to read. Now that’s a miracle, like levitating a ’54 Merc while sober. How can you keep children from learning for twelve years what a couple of small girls learned in a month?
Another question is how kids can be kept from wanting to read. Here too we have enacted a marvel that ranks with the fishes and loaves. When I was about seven, I was a literary omnivore, coming back from the library in Westover with armloads of indiscriminately chosen everything. The Orange Book of fairy tales, the Red Book, etc., Greek mythology, Kipling, WWII, battleships, what have you. I would happily attribute this to my unparalleled brilliance if I could find evidence. Unfortunately other kids were doing the same thing.
The drug store sold Hardy Boys books, Tom Swift, the Lone Ranger, long rows of them. Presumably they weren’t there exclusively for me. I remember inventing what I called “sneak reading.” When supposedly I was going to sleep, I held the plug of my reading lamp just far enough into the socket to turn it on, so that I could quietly turn it off by pulling it out slightly should I hear creaking floorboards. I was fooling my parents less than I thought I was, but this revelation came later. At various times I used flashlights and candles. (Book matches don't work. I know.)
I have since learned that all sorts of kids did the same thing. So much for my uniqueness in the universe.
How do you render witless kids who by their nature want to know everything? In the early Fifties, when I was a wee tyke, toy stores sold chemistry sets. (Gilbert. One had fifty bottles.) You did actual sort of chemistry with them. They had the alcohol lamp, test tubes, NiChrome wire for jack-leg spectroscopy, as well as cobalt chloride, phenolpthalein, sodium silicate, sodium thiosulfate, and such like. There was a sphinthariscope so you could watch radium decaying and perhaps eat it and get bone cancer, and a booklet that explained atomic structure and the difference between atomic number and atomic weight.
In toy stores. For ordinary little boys. The same stores had Gilbert microscopes, though mine was a fifteen-dollar better model from Edmund Scientific. I knew about well slides, cover glasses, Canada balsam, Volvox, rotifers, every bug in the garden, paramecia, planaria. Michel Duquez and I slit our wrists ever so slightly so that we could look at blood. We were not gooberish socially defective nerds obsessed with science. We had baseball mitts and comic-book collections and explored storm sewers.
School? Much better then than now. At Robert E. Lee Elementary on Lee Highway we learned more fractions and English grammar than many college graduates today know. Smart women had not yet all become useless lawyers. Yet even then schools were tedious jails, robot factories. They refused to let kids learn what they were ready to learn.
In second grade my teacher decided that I was retarded. We were reading about a family of beavers, and Mrs Beaver had three sticks and Little Bitty Beaver had four, and how many did they have together? I didn’t really care. I wanted to read my astronomy book. I guess it showed.
So a psychologist lady came from the school board and every day for a week she tested me to put me in an asylum. Could I hear and see, she wanted to know? Yes, lady, actually, and now can I read my astronomy book? She had some dimwitted tests of logic and then of vocabulary, which I had lots of because I hadn’t been paying attention in school. In those days school wasn’t quite a place intended to keep kids from learning, but it was getting there.
Finally the psychologist lady told my teacher that I was bored. She could have asked me.