Literacy Is Not a Destination; It’s a Journey
Many children fall in love with the sorcerous world of Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or the supernatural, elusive vampires in Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight series. Evidenced by the school library’s long waitlist for these books, my peers had a perpetual draw to such books that I could not understand.
I always viewed reading as a chore. From my earliest days of painstakingly reading three-word sentences from Fun with Dick and Jane, “‘See me run,’ said Sally. ‘See Spot run. Oh, oh! This is fun.,’” aloud to my mother to the more adventurous times of The Boxcar Children living out of their battered red boxcar, stress and aversion shot to my mind the moment I had to read. I simply wanted to do anything else, and without so much as a fair chance, my interest in reading was tossed into a vault and sealed.
Skirting along with the bare minimum of reading required of me, my enthusiasm wafted toward math and science. Math and science made sense; there was always a logical solution. For example, reflective eyes in cats or red eyes in pictures appear cryptic, but science has a simple explanation.
The retina, a structure at the back of our eyes, contains photoreceptors that send neural impulses to our brain, thus allowing us to see. Since the retina is tinted red, the light rays of a camera flash passing through our dilated eyes bounce off the retina and are picked up by the camera. Similarly, we have another structure at the back of our eyes called the choroid, which is a network of blood vessels that provides nourishment to the retina. The choroid causes our pupils to appear black by absorbing all light. Conversely in animals, the choroid lacks pigment, meaning that it reflects all colors. The retina essentially now has two opportunities to absorb the light. This shiny phenotype gives animals, like cats, superior night vision.
If science can tell me why I can see a pair of eyes in the dark before I can see my cat and why otherwise decent pictures are ruined with red eyes, why should I direct any attention to ambiguous concepts in books? Why do I need to know Amelia Bedelia does not understand that drawing the drapes does not mean to literally draw them? Why do I need to hear about Junie B. Jones’s latest struggle? The clarity of denotation overpowered the possibilities of connotation in my mind. The two would only intersect once I deepened my understanding of denotation enough to realize the necessity of connotation.
The abominable sentence diagramming pervaded middle school curriculums. Closing off any traces of fondness for the English language for nearly all students, sentence diagramming had the reverse effect on me. Compartmentalization of a sentence turned a nebulous set of rules into a rigid set. Each animal fit into its respective niche in a sentence diagram. The planned, predictable, and reliable methodology sat well with my juvenile mind.
Grammar soon became the next big topic. Though it too, like diagramming, engendered repugnance among the rest of the middle school population, I became more captivated. Grammar mistakes began to materialize everywhere. Even as I grew older, the myriad mistakes in college textbooks were astounding. Grammar gave purpose to my reading and writing.
Learning and memorizing such a sheer volume of rules may appear rote and mechanical. Perhaps this was part of the case. The result for me, however, was a newfound appreciation for language in general. I began to actively listen and read because I was searching and analyzing what I heard and saw.
Though an unconventional connection to make, I truly began to see the power of writing and words when I began to play the cello. If a conglomeration of lines and ovals on a page could hold so much meaning, move masses to tears, and persist for decades, could letters printed on pages hold similar power? Being mathematical and systematic, I never gave much thought to any type of visceral meaning; I always swayed toward the explicit definition.
As a novice musician, if the page indicated a crescendo, I would carry this out. My bow would drive harder into the strings and move a closer physical distance to the bridge, and, gradually, I would produce a louder sound. But I was missing something. Why was I getting louder? Why crescendo there and not in the previous three measures? Why does a certain note have an accent mark and another a marcato mark when they indicate nearly the same action? What I was missing was that I never considered any of this, just as I made no attempt to visualize or to form connections as I read.
After several years of playing the cello, the nuances of different musicians came alive to me. Yo-Yo Ma may be the most widely known cellist today, but British cellist Jacqueline du Pré always stood out to me. Watching her performances pulled me into the music. I could feel the meaning of each breath, each pause. Deliberate and calculated execution of the music maintained the conflagration of passion and empathy. du Pré’s performances showed me that music is just a conglomeration of lines and ovals on a page. Music has no meaning until we assign meaning.
The recognition that infusing vitality into music was a duty incumbent upon musicians translated to the obligation of students, readers, and participants in society to attach connotation to language across various mediums.
The antithesis of meaning and structure merged into a deeply rooted appreciation and understanding for what I had once so gratuitously discarded. A piece of writing no longer seemed dull as I began to surpass the literal definitions of the language and tailor the writing to my experiences and interpretation.
As with the development of any skill, literacy requires constant, active investment and attentiveness. Puerto Rican cellist Pablo Casals was one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. When Casals was 95 years old, a reporter asked him why he insisted on practicing six hours a day, to which he replied, “Because I think I’m making progress.” Diligence can press us to reach a near mastery level, but experiences shape this journey.
In college, we meet a vast number of people who come from a variety of places, giving them distinctive experiences and insights. Each and every person brings something to the table: their perspective, their experience, their knowledge, etc. Such a bombardment of information enriches one’s literacy to the deepest of levels.
I see and experience this every day at the CommLab. I am privileged to benefit from and play a small role in this convergence of ideas, knowledge, and wisdom. Attainment of complete literacy is to be sought after but never fully achieved. While Ulysses reaches his apogee by arriving back home, literacy’s climax is still in the distance. The CommLab has carried me miles closer.