Tag Archives: International Literacy Day

Mark Twain and the Magic of Reading: a Reflection on International Literacy Day 2015

One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.

When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.

As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, image source Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”

So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”

And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.

I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.

Question

Who are your favorite storytellers?

D.E.A.R- Drop Everything and read: Celebrating International Literacy

While casually browsing my Twitter feed as part of my morning routine, I was reminded by a friend that yesterday, September 8th, was designated International Literacy day—a day devoted to calling attention to and promoting world literacy and literacy needs. According to Reading.org “More than 780 million of the world’s adults (nearly two-thirds of whom are women) do not know how to read or write, and between 94 and 115 million children lack access to education.” As a writing and literature teacher, I find myself reflecting as I consider that statistic on how privileged I am in my own literacy and how honored I feel to count myself among those individuals who dedicate themselves to promoting literacy.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a home where, perhaps because both of my parents were and are still teachers, reading always seemed to take precedence over watching television, or even playing out of doors; always a firm believer in the simple idea that growing children need fresh air, if my mother couldn’t force me out of doors to play, she would at least encourage me to sit on the front porch with my book. When people ask me why I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature, I always share with them an anecdote I’m fond of relating: One day, when I was in the sixth grade, I was kept home from school with stomach flu and sent to Grandma’s house; sick or not, Grandma’s house was paradise; she had cable. Cable meant MTV. Just before dropping me off at Grandma’s on her way to work, Mom informed me sternly that I wasn’t to sit in front of the
TV all day. (Not that I’d planned to, or anything…perish the thought. What kind of twelve year-old did my mother think I was?). What then, I wondered, was I supposed to do? For answer, Mom handed me a cassette player and a stack of tapes rubber-banded together. It was an audiobook of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I’m still not entirely sure why or how my mother had this in her possession, but I’m almost certain that she’d been saving it for just such an emergency. Thinking their might be a quiz when she came to pick me up, I decided I’d read it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, as a visually impaired child, reading naturally held more appeal for me than watching television, playing dodge ball in the street, or riding my bike, not that I hadn’t engaged in such activities. Fond though I was of proving my ability to keep pace with my peers, one can only take so many scraped knees and broken glasses before admitting that there might be some truth to the paraphrased adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try again; then give up. There’s no point being a damn idiot about it.” Admittedly though, I hadn’t always adored reading—hardly surprising when I had to magnify words to such a ridiculously large size that I’m pretty sure Stevie Wonder could have read them from outer space. Needless to say, trying to read so slowly that I’d forgotten what the story was about before I’d gotten to the bottom of page 5 didn’t strike me as a particularly rewarding or entertaining pastime. It was bad enough that I came home from school with migraines that left me physically ill and bleary-eyed for days at a time. If I hadn’t been introduced to the wonder of braille and the magic of audiobooks, I might not have ever given it a chance.

It’s that passion for the world I learned to explore between the pages of books and the freedom to wander through that world on my own and make my own discoveries that I love sharing with my students. When we talk of my love for literature (and sometimes of their own as well, because college students sometimes read more than we instructors give them credit for even if they don’t perhaps gravitate toward the reading we assign them) a student will invariably ask me what my favorite book is. To an English teacher, asking that question is, I think, akin to asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I have so very many: the before-mentioned Jane Eyre, because it was the first “grownup” book I read; Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, because as an adolescent, I identified with the fear and social degradation of being labeled a wallflower as the only girl no boy approached at school dances; the Ramona Quimbey series, because it kept me company on so many Saturday afternoons. Some books, like the ones above, I value primarily for sentimental reasons, though having taught and written about the Brontes and Austen in my professional endeavors, I’ve come to value them equally for their scholarly worth. Others, like Khaled Hosseini’s the Kite Runner, I love because they challenge me to step outside myself and view the world from an entirely different vantage point.

so in a gesture of acknowledgement of the incalculable worth of the written word, what are your favorite books? Can you recall a particular experience that turned you on to reading? Share your thoughts—and then, go celebrate International Literacy day—as Beverly Cleary so aptly puts it in Ramona Quimbey Age 8, drop everything and read!