Literacy and Liberty

I Think I Randomly Chose to be Left-Handed
Posted by: , September 18, 2018, 9:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Learning how to write was a classroom task for me. It involved sitting on one hand and trying to convince myself (and my teacher) that the writing hand I’d chosen was the ‘dominant’ one based on the idea that the letters were slightly less shaky, despite the fact that early on there’s not much difference. There were copybooks similar to those that Douglass describes, where sentences were printed above lines that looked consistently like this


for students to butcher with our scrawls. We wrote ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” and then we wrote “THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG,” for pages at a time (we learned to write in lowercase and uppercase print in pre-school and kindergarten; cursive wasn’t taught until 2nd grade). It seemed hellish– before your hands get used to it, they constantly cramp and the lack of calluses on the ring finger makes the already-awkward sense of holding a pencil actively uncomfortable.

Learning to write (and read) openly in a classroom, I realize now, was a privilege that comparatively few people get to experience, especially in the case of women. The restriction of literacy that Douglass confronted in his lifetime is hardly eradicated, and the fact that I was taught how to access the texts and ideas of others through reading, and how to express my own through writing, was a gift the gravity of which I don’t think I could have understood from my position at five years old.

Connect the Dots
Posted by: , September 5, 2018, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

My kindergarten teacher hated me. I was five or six years old, uninterested in rules or the people who set them, and I loved Harry Potter. None of these pieces of who I was are particularly abnormal for the age group, but the Boiling Springs school district had some very strong ideas about which parts were acceptable, and the answer was none of them. Rules were there for my safety, the people who set the rules were important because they said so, and Harry Potter was off-limits because it had two purple dots.

The dot system at W.G. Rice Elementary school is not unique– it exists in elementary schools all over the United States. All of the books in the library are coded according to a reading level assigned by the librarians: for example, one yellow dot is an easy first grade read, and two purple dots is an advanced fifth grade read. Students are not allowed to check out books that do not match their grade level dot. The entire Harry Potter series was coded as two purple dots, which meant that it was strictly out-of-bounds for me. Still, it took two attempts to check out various books in the series (the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Prisoner of Azkaban, if I’m remembering right) as well as bringing in my own copy from home and reading it during math class before my teacher called in my parents for a meeting. The meeting went something like this: My parents come in one evening after work, with me, and we all sit down in the kindergarten classroom. For some inexplicably dramatic reason, the principle is there. My teacher schmoozes with my parents for a little while to try and make herself seem like a friend, and then they turn the subject to my wild, delinquent self. “It’s cute that she’s pretending,” smiles my teacher, giving me a facial expression roughly equivalent to a just-too-hard pat on the head, “but it needs to stop.” Long story short, I had to read passages, summarize the books that I had read thus far, and have my parents threaten to move me to a new school before I was given special, written permission from the principle to check out books that were above my grade level.

It was a defining experience in my life. It was the first time that I had come up against institutional censorship, and it wasn’t fun. I’m sure that many other students have experienced similar situations, and it is my own opinion that the entire concept of the dot system in school libraries needs to be discarded. The potential benefit of helping children find books suited to their reading level is solidly outweighed by the limitations that it places on anyone who finds themselves outside the average reading level for their age, be that above or below.