Monday, July 30, 2012

Declaration of Independence: On reading and the rights of children

When I was in preschool, while I was still having trouble expressing myself with words, I daydreamed constantly.  I sat out during our recess and watched the girls on the swing-set.  I didn’t know how to swing.  I didn’t know how to ask and no one had thought to teach me yet.  Already I was starting to see gender divides.  Every day, boys wrestled, and hit each other with sticks, and put strange things into their mouths until someone with authority noticed and stopped them.  On the other hand, the girls made immediately for the swings, as though drawn by some inner-magnetism.  They got on the swings and didn’t stop until someone blew the whistle to end recess.  This hidden knowledge frustrated and also exhilarated me.   I would just stare as the enlightened few went up and down, smiling and giggling in the air, never realizing their power, and I would imagine them changing in midair to birds and flying away.  This is the first time I can remember desiring knowledge: till I had seen girls in flight, I’d never considered how my lack of knowledge kept me bound to the ground.  I learned to ask questions, and did, constantly, about everything.

Around four years old, I had a favorite game I’d play with my mother.  I combined letters and then asked her if they were words.  This could keep me preoccupied for ages. Most of the time it was pretty easy for her; I hadn’t quite figured out the important difference between vowels and consonants and how to connect the two for phonemes, let alone words.  I kept her on her guard though: every now and then I’d memorize the spelling of one word.  We’d start as usual: I’d reel off several strings of letters.  Every now and then I’d toss out one of the words I knew, almost exclusively of the three-letter variety, then I would lull her into complacency with one barrage of useless letters after another.  Finally, I’d say “What about E-S-T-U-A-R-Y… Is that a word?” smiling to myself, knowing full well the answer (while having no idea what the word meant).  I didn’t do it too often, and invariably my mother would stop in her tracks and turn to me.  Cunning little plagiarist that I was, I only cited a source once.  When my mom learned that I had seen it on a book, she smiled, explained the word and that was the end. . .  but when I acted as though I had stumbled upon it, catching a word flying through the air, she treated the it as a talisman, and me as a wunderkind.  Already I had begun to learn that words and books held tremendous, secret power, but it was another struggle, much like learning to speak, to unlock it. 

Reading was very difficult for me.  I knew the letters, but I didn't see them as tools or friends.  They were confusing and contradictory.  The school was using an unofficial version of Hooked on Phonics that focused not on the phonemes, but on the teachers constantly repeating one phrase, "Sound it out.  Just sound it out!" The sounds didn't make sense to me.  There were so many rules I thought the teachers were making them up.  For instance, I couldn't figure out why "bread" was pronounced "bred" and not "breed" when "reading" was pronounced "reeding".  On top of that, I had a small speech impediment: I couldn't say "S"s at the beginning of sentences.  I used to lie in my bed at night and repeat "squirrels have tails, girls have curls, squirrels have tails, girls have curls."  I knew, but getting the “s” on the “quirrel” was very hard. 

The school responded by putting me in the "slow class".  That was actually its name.  We had to wear huge, avocado-green headsets and listen as a proper, lightly-accented British woman read words to us while we looked at them simultaneously on the page.  Most of the time, I did the same thing all of my report cards said: I spaced out. I daydreamed.  I thought about what it would be like to have wings, or bounce when I fell off the jungle gym.  I worked with my parents on reading, but it was no fun, and in homeroom I looked at the mass of letters like an incomprehensible war on the page and said "I can't". If the teacher tried to prod me further, I started to cry.

This kept up until 2nd grade when I had Ms. Beck.  She wouldn't take "no" for an answer.  She acknowledged that it was hard, and that sometimes it didn't seem to make sense, but she told me that I wasn't allowed to say "I can't" or "I don't know" anymore.  She introduced me to "The Little Engine That Could" and I slowly learned to “sound out” words and recognize and remember the ones that couldn't be sounded out. My mantra became "I think I can, I think I can."  Sometimes I still couldn't, but there were fewer tears, and instead of a war, I saw the letters on the page as a mountain that I was chugging my way up.

I didn’t know it at the time, but “I think I can, I think I can” was my declaration of independence.  Once I could read, I took charge of answering my own questions.  All the time I’d previously spent daydreaming in class, I used to read.  I read in English.  I read in Math.  I read in Science.  During school I usually just read ahead in my class textbooks, but my favorite books were stories with lessons or hidden meanings that would give me something to worry at as I fell asleep.  I devoured folklore. I memorized a book of Aesop’s Fables.  Then D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.  And I retold the stories at sleepover camp, in front of the fire, and I realized that while ordinarily I was a shy child, desperate to please authority figures, when I told stories, I was in charge.  The story was mine to command, with everyone’s attention and even respect hanging on my every word.  I was the magician.  I controlled flight and I could free people from the bonds they couldn’t see.
These experiences indicate the importance of two articles in The Convention on the Rights of the Child.  First, article 14, which “respect[s] the right of the child to free thought,” and  second, article 28, which “recognize[s] the right of the child to education.”  These truths I took to be self-evident, along with one other right that served as the central braid connecting education and freedom in my story; however, The Convention on the Rights of the Child does not include it: independence.  Development of, and respect for, my independence as a learner, were the two most important rights granted to me as a child. 

The only time the word “independence” is even used in The Convention on the Rights of the Child is to refer to a nebulous and vaguely nefarious sounding “independent and impartial authority.”  The first things a child is taught are rules, and for most children, the most important rule is that adults are the “authority," and swiftly thereafter they learn that adults’ authority, for better or for worse, is in no way impartial.  Children are told to “do as I say, not as I do.”  They see one set of parents ignore their child’s behavior; meanwhile, they are chastised by their own parents for crimes they don’t fully understand.  Meanwhile, in school, teachers tell students to push themselves, but punish them with bad grades if they fail to do anything other than what the teacher feels is right.  Nearly every child will experience the aforementioned types of authoritarianism and unfortunately, in many cases it will be far worse.  Indeed, it is no mistake, but a sad indictment of prevailing attitudes towards children, that in the US, when a child wishes to conduct their own business, they must become “emancipated,” as though previously they were oppressed.  The small injustices children face at the hands of well-meaning authority figures is nothing compared to the abuse they can be subjected to as dependents of adults who care nothing for their rights.

One of the early propositions of the declaration is "that the child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society," but a student who only learns what not to do and is dependent on authorities for all learning has little chance of living an individual life.  For this and the aforementioned reasons, failing to include a provision among the 54 articles the UN proposes for “the right of the child to independence” is either a distressing gap, or a call to children everywhere.  The rights that are given to you by authorities keep you at the mercy of authorities; however, the rights you declare, by educating yourself and exercising your freedom to express yourself become a part of you and cannot be taken without a fight.