Reading Badly

I began this semester by reading literacy narratives with my students. We started with Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me,” in which young Alexie, growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, becomes excited about reading via a comic book and, through that, locates the desire to resist the cultural pressure to underperform intellectually. We moved on to one of David Sedaris’s essays about struggling to learn French as an adult, then read together the well-known section from The Autobiography of Malcolm X titled “Learning to Read,” a combination of literacy narrative, personal moment of liberation, and call to arms via education that occurs during his incarcerations in Charlestown State Prison and Norfolk Prison Colony.

My students are in the Honors College. Many of them come from well-educated families; for the vast majority of them, going to college was never in doubt. Reading came easily. Their educational ambitions were supported.

But, when I look around the room, I still see small acts of resistance, even liberation. There are a number of young female scientists in the class; they are preparing for year-long research projects on the habits of a particular freshwater fish, or developing a process related to the physical properties of gold. By definition, as female scientists, they are in the statistical minority. At some point, each said yes to science when most of society pointed them toward no. What moment of learning gave them that strength? They are not alone; there are other moments in which learning, or just reading, provide stability or connection. A young man in the class tells us about reading Harry Potter to his father over the phone after his parents’ divorce. “I am trying to save my life,” Sherman Alexie writes, in regards to his reading. He’s not the only one.

Looking at these narratives with my students and asking them to share their own journeys into reading and intellectualism has led me to think back to my own early encounters with education. Like my students, I had parents who supported education, and, for the most part, I had teachers who tried their best to accommodate me. But the journey into and through a reading life is never entirely smooth.

I was born in Brooklyn, and had the good fortune to spend my early schooling in a Montessori environment. While I now know that Montessori represents a rigorous set of educational theories, from my five-year-old perspective, going to Montessori school, as I did on Carroll Street in Park Slope, meant do what you want when you want. You want to read books all day? Very focused. Don’t want to read at all? You’re just not ready yet. Want to spend all day drawing in the dirt? Excellent for your fine motor skills. We even moved through classrooms at our own pace, so that when I reached second grade, I was at least year younger than most of the other children.

Things changed when I turned seven. My mother had been raising me by herself in the city, but she began a new relationship and decided it was time for a change of life and place. We moved to the Catskills, land of rural roads and public schools. Instead of walking to Montessori school holding my Sigmund and the Sea Monsters lunch box on one side and my mother’s hand on the other, I boarded one school bus and then another school bus which dropped me off, forty-five minutes later, to follow a crowd of children into a massive building.

School now functioned much in the way that the children’s book of the time, Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, describes the daily lives of sheep: “they do everything together and all at the same time.” When it was time for math, everyone sharpened their pencils and opened to page twenty-four. When it was time for recess, we all jumped up when the bell rang, assembled for our jackets, assembled in the hallway to walk outside, assembled in a line to have a go at kickball, and did it all in reverse order (line up, jackets off, sit down) when the bell rang again. And when it came time to read, we all read the same thing for the same amount of time.

I should say, at this point, that a robust family mythology had long been constructed around my reading abilities. I learned to read, it was claimed, at three years old; if my mother was to be believed, I read three times faster than children my age (how this was measured, and in what circumstances, is not clear). When my grandparents walked me around their condo complex in Florida, I was introduced to their fellow retirees (proud Jewish grandparents all) as The Reader. Since I had no other special skills, I took this title very seriously.books-3

So when the Fallsburg Central School District, third grade division, asked me to sit and read in lock step with my classmates, someone was asking for trouble.

On this particular day, just after I started school in this new environment, we were told to open our books and read an article that was, if I remember correctly (which I do), on the subject of the following: regurgitating penguins. It consisted of approximately seven paragraphs of equal length and a photograph of the penguin in question, mid-regurgitation, while its chick waited expectantly below.

I read the article, noted the definition of the new word, noted my response to the subject (fascinating, if a bit gross), and closed the book. I looked up, pleased with myself—the reading had only taken about a minute—and waited for praise to come my way. This is what my family and Montessori classroom had trained me to expect. The teacher, who I’ll call Mrs. Stillman, came over. She was a middle-aged woman with black-dyed hair and a take-no-prisoners-attitude. I had arrived partially into the start of the school year, which I sensed was an inconvenience, but I was glad to make it up to her by bringing The Reader to her classroom.

“We are reading now,” she said.

“I did read,” I said. “I just read.”

“Everyone else is still reading,” she said. This was true. The girl next to me was staring at the page, her mouth moving with each word as if her job were to swallow them and regurgitate them back to the page in due course. Elsewhere, a boy was looking at the book and tapping his foot. Another was chewing a pencil. Yet another bonked the underside of his desk with his knee once, twice, a third time. But they were all still looking in the direction of regurgitating penguins.

“I did read,” I said again.

“You have to read the whole thing,” she clarified.

“I read the whole thing,” I said. “It didn’t take very long.”

At which point I was placed in a storeroom.

“You may come out when you’ve done the assigned reading,” she said. And closed the door.

The storeroom was attached to the main classroom, shallow but long lengthwise, with a small window in the door and extra textbooks, paper, and school supplies on the shelves all around. There was just enough room for me to lie down and open the book, which I did, and re-read the article to see if I might have missed a section. I had not, and since I had already read it once, the second time through was even quicker. I closed the book again and opened the storeroom door.

“I told you to read the article,” Mrs. Stillman said. “I’m sure I told you that.”

“I read it,” I said.

“You just went in there.”

I believed, still, that the object of the exercise was to show that I had read the article. I did not, yet, understand that it was about something else—power, or at the very least, control, a system that allowed little room for outliers either positive or negative. There were many students in the classroom and only one teacher. But I did not realize the implications of that. So, using my full powers as The Reader, I recited from recent memory the first three paragraphs about the penguin, its chick, and its remarkable devotion to eating its food and then giving it back for its young’s benefit.

At this point, no one was reading anymore. The girl had ceased to mouth the words as she read. The boy who was chewing his pencil was no longer chewing his pencil. It was just sitting in his mouth. Most of the kids were doing their best to avoid eye contact with me, with the teacher, with anything in the world.

Back in the storeroom.

“Nobody likes a show-off,” Mrs. Stillman said, closing the door again.

This time, in the storeroom, I cried.

Later, at home, I told my mother about the episode, that I had read very quickly, which she believed, and that I had been placed in a storeroom as a consequence, which she did not know whether to believe or not. She told me to be sure to let her know if anything of the sort happened again. My new stepfather offered to put sugar in the teacher’s gas tank, though it wasn’t clear to me how that would help my situation. In any case, I did not make the same mistake again. I still read quickly in class, but I took enough of the edge off my performance to avoid detection. I boycotted school on a regular basis through a series of fake illnesses. On the days that I didn’t attend, I read most of the day away, choosing from my preferred assortment of sports stories, comic books, and the tales of John Carter, The Warlord of Mars. When I did attend, the teacher would hand me a stack of make-up work, much of it reading, which meant that I was free to unleash my full powers to catch up with my classmates. I sat at my desk and sped through the reading of juvenile science and social studies subjects, while my classmates lined up dutifully to put on their jackets and thwack a red kickball. Each of us—the teacher and I—felt confident we had defeated the other.

I labored through the school year in that way, and when we moved houses at the end of the year, I landed in another public school in the next district, where I wound up in the classroom of a slightly more flexible teacher. But the magic spell of my early schooling had been broken. From then on, it seemed unsafe to be too different from my classmates. At the same time I wanted to be good at something—really good—and so I toggled uneasily between achievements in the classroom, which came easily, and figuring out when to slip quietly into the crowd.

For a long time, I saw the third grade as a simple victim narrative. I understand it now to be much more than that. I recognize that in asserting myself I had also intruded on a space that worked in a particular way. Not my way, certainly, or the way that I was used to, but one that I should have figured out how to meet partway. Nobody likes a show-off.

Yes, I learned to read books quickly, and very well. But reading other people—that took much longer.

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