Over the course of the past four months, as I have been unpacking from our July move, I have run across a number of things that have absolutely surprised me. It’s not unusual, I suppose, to forget that you actually own some things, especially if they’ve been across the country in another house for a year. However, it’s a weird thing to unpack and find a writing assignment from fifteen years ago (October 1995 to be exact), tucked into I can’t even remember what. Weird & interesting. Apparently the assignment was to write three reflections, each on a different day, on what literacy meant to me. Here’s what I wrote:
Reflection #1 (October 1, 1995) – Hymn of Thanksgiving
I believe I was a junior in high school when I wrote this piece, or perhaps it was between my junior and senior years. My piano teacher was conducting a music theory workshop, and we had to write little snippets of music from time to time. I think the first part came to me during a session devoted to writing. However, we were to continue with it (or write something new – I don’t recall) for the next week. As usual, I left it until the last minute, and it was in the car driving to my lesson that the second part fell into place in my head. I kept rethinking it over & over so I wouldn’t forget it, and quickly wrote it down when I arrived. Amazing that a little ditty could happen that easily, make sense, and follow composition rules for voicing four part harmony.
It occurs to me now, as I look again at my tune, that though it is rough on the edges and really quite simple, it demonstrates a level of knowledge that many people don’t have access to. I was lucky to be able to study music throughout my whole life, and to have an example to follow in my mother. I have become a more well-rounded and culturally literate individual from the rewarding experience of playing the piano. My scope of knowledge and understanding is wider and deeper than those who don’t have contact and experience with the arts. Music in itself opens up a whole new language, as well as a magnificent display of beauty throughout history, to those fortunate enough (and susceptible enough) to its grasp. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have had a mother who, once I started, insisted that I always continue toward my musical goals.
Reflection #2 (October 3, 1995) – Ed Kilbourne
How ironic that a virtual unknown in the musical community could write a song that so perfectly conveys the polarity within the educational community. (Note on 11-4-11…I did not realize at the time that this was a cover, and that the original song was penned by Harry Chapin, which renders my “literacy” of 1995 quite a bit less defined than I thought it was. Ha! Anyway…) On the one side are those who stay with the familiar, the comfortable, the “right way” of doing things. On the other are the people, students and teachers alike, who crave and encourage creativity, risk-taking, and individuality. In my opinion – and oh, I do have opinions – how can a person who takes no risks, who stays within the norms, who does not take time to develop fresh and vibrant ideas and thoughts, be considered a fully literate person as it is defined today? By defining literacy as not only the ability to read and write, but also the capacity to think critically, formulate ideas, move away from the familiar into uncharted territory of thought and development, exercise creative license, make sound decisions both academically and otherwise, I must come to the conclusion that restricting anyone from any part of literacy (at any age) puts him/her at a disadvantage. It also breaks spirits and instills fear in even the bravest of people. Just look at the little boy in the song: by not allowing him to express himself and his thoughts as he sees fit, the teacher has effectively squelched his confidence in his ideas, superimposing her own as “right.” If we as teachers operate in this way, we turn out robots rather than movers and shakers. If we discourage creativity and original thought, we turn out students capable only of copying what has been done before. In essence, we impede their literacy because of a few of the new, untried and different.
As I develop my teaching strategies and skills, I want to keep this song as a reminde of what not to do. I’m not interested in creating intellectual clones, but instead free thinkers with visions and the ability to make visions into realities. That, to me, demonstrates literacy.
Reflection #3 (October 10, 1995) – Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My tattered and worn copy of Huck Finn is a testament to the number of times it has been read. The binding is torn and the pages are falling out, but it is still one of the most precious books I own – not because it was a gift (it wasn’t) or because it was the first book I read (it wasn’t). It is precious because it was written to reflect the history, both good and bad, of our nation. It demostrantes Twain’s understanding of and revulsion toward racism and bigotry. He was literate, not just as a writer and speaker, but also as a historian and as an American. He understood the repercussions of slavery, and how the seeds of prejudice could lead to hatred and violence. Yet he also bought into the system because it was the only system he knew. Regardless, he did not let it stop him from forcibly voicing his opinions through his literature. He demonstrates in Huck Finn an understanding of the language, the dialect, the heart, the soul and the mind of America. He is not afraid to engage in the perplexing, and often morally difficult, issues of breaking the law, friendship and honor. He uses his knowledge of the English language and American History to weave a magnetic tale that pounds home moral and ethical dilemmas, yet refrains from using didactic ploys to accentuate his point.
I often wonder if Twain knew the adage that says if we forget history, we are doomed to repeat it. Even if he didn’t, his historical perspective is a good catalyst for talking and writing about the issues of today, if not to chagne the way society thinks, then at the very least to remember what has happened. This is a small part of what literacy is all about.
So, in November 2011, I read over these roughly written reflections, and while I cringe a little (ok…a lot) at some of the language I used, at my obviously shallow knowledge of history, at my youthful perspective, and at my overblown sense of how literate I was, I am gratified that there are small traces in those thoughts of who I am today. At this more seasoned point in my life, I realize that true literacy much less an issue of knowledge, and much more an issue of understanding how much you don’t know…and (perhaps) making conscious efforts to fill the gaps.
I hope I always have the desire and the ability to chase those portals of knowledge, and to fill to overflowing the fissures in my literacy.