- Academic Departments
- Et al. Journal
- Volume VI: In My Own Words 2016/2017
- My (not so) Horrible History with Literacy
My (not so) Horrible History with Literacy
Oh my word was it boring. Why, oh why, did we have to do it? I actually feared for my teeth on those days as just the mention of it would cause me to grit them to refrain from using one of those "bad words." If I didn't have the sense my mother tells me I was born with, I would suggest some of the other kids developed stomach ulcers. What I'm talking about is dictation. That ridiculous activity where the teacher reads out a text – usually as dull as dishwater – and the students have to write down what they hear. My teacher would hand out a musty piece of lined paper to each student along with a dangerously sharp pencil. She would then return to the front of the class and begin to read from a book which was published exclusively for dictation; a collection of paragraphs without any ongoing plot or interesting language. There would be one sentence followed by a painfully long pause, allowing the slow writers time to get it down on their paper. That would go on for at least two dozen sentences, and each pause was, for me at least, far too long and a repetitive source of boredom. Now I suppose it taught some students where to put certain punctuation marks, or gave them examples of how to read with expression, but I found it to be a waste of my precious childhood. I could already read and write very well and had good listening skills since I was in utero. How was I going to reclaim my passion for literacy?
Fortunately, my parents took the time to teach me to read and write before I started school. Both of them were determined that my three siblings and I were to have the best possible chances of success in life. Most days in the year before I started school, my mother would sit me down on the couch and either read to me, or have me read to her. It usually came with a snack and was followed by play time which I now realize must have been a reward for my literacy. I would pick up new words and ideas, getting practice that my peers likely did not. Aside from the comforting intimacy that came from sitting on her lap, it gave me an enjoyable way to practice my reading. My parents believed early literacy was the cornerstone of almost everything else. It is a belief I still hold and practice with my four-year-old today. I will never be able to repay them for the upbringing they gave me. Being ahead of the curve was a great bonus; I had good relationships with all of my teachers and I received quite a few awards. That was until I reached the fourth grade. I had never before seen a class with such wildly mismatched students. Some could read very well, some only a little. A few of them needed their sticky little fingers to follow the words, others just their eyes. Some kids' writing looked as though a tarantula had plunged into an inkwell and then scurried across the pages (I say with a deluge of hypocrisy). I had to endure a number of classes consisting of simple spelling, excruciatingly slow reading, and, I'm sure, dictation.
My mind couldn't take it anymore. It started to act as my Ascalon slaying the dragon of boredom. I would daydream about playing football rather than listening to my classmates read. Then when it came to my turn, I would read as quickly as I could just to get it over and done with. Another great time waster was to discuss the latest goings-on in the then-World Wrestling Federation.
"Hey Ross, did you see that choke slam last night?" I would say. "Can you believe they got together in a tag team?"
I wasn't learning anything new. My reading and writing skills were stagnating. My relationship with literacy was now heading down the proverbial toilet. Mrs. Sinha, my fourth grade teacher, realized this and was the plunger that rescued me.
While we were writing during one particularly lowbrow lesson, Mrs. Sinha called me over and menacingly whispered the most frightening words a child can hear: "I need to talk to you." She didn't really emit those words in that manner but has a young child ever heard them any other way? My stomach churned and my throat tightened, but they need not have. She reached into her handbag and handed me a copy of one of her son's Horrible Histories books by Terry Deary. I really wish I could remember exactly which one it was. If I could, I would buy a copy, frame it, and hang it up as a monument to all of my successes with literacy since that moment. Alas, it will have to remain as "one of those books." Her son was a couple of years older than me and the book not really aimed at a fourth grader. Yet there was no issue; she recognized I could handle both the vocabulary and the subject matter.
"I thought you might enjoy this, Kirk," she said to me, wearing her broad smile.
"Oh, yes. Thanks," I muttered in surprise.
"You can read this while we work on the next topic. Let me know what you think," she replied as she shepherded me back to my seat.
I did not hesitate to get started. I opened the book and didn't close it until I heard Mrs. Sinha calling out "Lunchtime!" at least an hour later. It was absolutely fascinating. It was an interesting history told using jokes and unusually gruesome facts. That was it. I was hooked.
I spent a lot of time over the following week or so reading that book while the rest of the class worked on something else. Each day started with me being excited about going to school rather than dreading it. My outlook had changed and my reading skills drastically improved. As soon as I finished that first book, she gave me another one to borrow. I gobbled up that one and received yet another.
"Mrs. Sinha! I've finished this one."
"No problem. My son has plenty more. I'll bring you a different one tomorrow."
Her generosity was as endless as summer in the tropics, as was her commitment to me and every other student in her class. I was constantly being shown it was okay to stand out. She was ignoring my age, and all of the associated stereotypes with that, as she helped me regain my previous upward trajectory with literacy. I dread to consider what would have resulted if she had been the Antonin Scalia of school curricula and stuck to exactly what was written in front of her.
Since that year, I have never fallen out of love with reading again. Mystery novels, presidential biographies, and newspapers are just a few of the things I take pleasure in reading. But there is a special place in my heart for what can be best-described as "history as entertainment." My reading skills have gotten me jobs and helped me to successfully apply to university.
I sincerely hope that as you read this, I have managed to locate and reconnect with Mrs. Sinha. My first message to her will contain just two simple words, thank you.