It’s hard to know what we don’t know. Like how to see and how we are seen.
This is me smiling into the unknown of second grade. I couldn’t read. The kind first grade teacher (not to be confused with the mean one) promoted me to second grade, but I had not unlocked the magic of marks on a page.
The popular approach to teaching reading at the time includes The Whole Word Method and Sight Words. I stand in the cool hallway outside the classroom while one of the kids who can read holds up flashcards for me. Held inches away from each card, I will it to tell me its secret. The only one I am sure of is the could card because it has a smudge on the corner.
In second grade I have my eyes checked for the first time. My mother takes me to see the man who makes glasses. There is old leather furniture in his dim street-front office. He sits me up in the exam chair. Look at the chart and read the first letter you can see.
I can’t make out the biggest letter. The man fiddles with a huge pair of metal wings and swings them to my face. I sit up taller, each eye peers through a tiny window in each wing. Now, he says, tell me what letter you see.
Silence. I see the marks but I don’t know their names. I have not learned the letters. I can sing the alphabet song, but no symbol pops up in my mind for the names. Oh, except A! I know A! There is not a single A on the chart. Now the man can see I am dumb.
He has another chart:
Tell me if the legs on the letter point up, down, left, or right. I don’t know the difference between left and right. I feel embarrassed. Use your hand the man says. Point your fingers the direction you see the legs pointing. That works.
A week or two later we go back. My new glasses are ready. I put them on. BOOM! A slant of light pours into the office. I can see a million dots of dust dance in the beam. I blink. Mommy and I step out onto the sidewalk. I stare. The entire street rushes into my eyes. I can see the tire tread on a car parked at the curb. The bricks on the building across the street. And the leaves — swarms of perfect, tiny, individual leaves on the tall oaks along the block. This? THIS is how the world looks?! This is what other people see?
My world was not transformed in one moment.
I can see with my glasses on. But when I take them off, I forget all that I have seen. Like at the swimming pool. I leave my glasses in the locker room. In the pool, other people are a blur. I know my sister and our friends by swimsuit color. I can not see faces or silly expressions. I see other swimmers as blurs, and I am sure that this is how they saw me. Without concern I pick my nose or pull my swimsuit out of the crack of my bottom. As the self-conscious child I am becoming, I would horrified to know the truth. But instead I am just one happy, floating, splashing, little blur among many.
We see ourselves as we think we are seen.
Thanks to phonics I begin to wrestle meaning from marks on a page. But I know I am eons behind my classmates. As third grade unfolds, I see smirks from easy readers and multiplication table mavens. I am a slow, hesitant learner. Nothing more than a blur.
The personal anger.
Fissures start early in the break up of the body, mind, spirit, union. By the time I am nine years old I know two things:
- Something is wrong with my feelings — my heart (spirit). Showing my emotions means parental displeasure or a scolding. If I say I feel lonely or sad, I am told You shouldn’t feel that way, or even You don’t feel that way. What I know is This is what I feel, but important people, like Mommy and Daddy, know my feelings are wrong.
- Something was wrong with my mind. I can’t read. I hate spelling.
I come from a family of quick, clever people. They learned to read by osmosis. They play Scrabble by the hour. They read for fun, dammit! Intelligence is noticed and praised. One person’s work is held up as an example for the others. The subtext: Can you do as well? There is no way I can compete. I know I am too emotional and rather plain looking:
I now have four-eyes, cry too easily (pretty girls should smile!), and not musically gifted or athletically inclined. I hate school and myself because I am slow, dumb, stupid. In a family where relationships are transactions — What do you have to offer? How will you make us proud? — I have nothing.
The trinity of my body, mind, spirit fractures a bit more.
So often anger blooms from pain. I talk with you about my anger — walk right toward my pain — because owning all of the story, especially the painful parts, is how I find healing, compassion & redemption.
In two weeks I begin teaching Basic English — a reading and writing class for college freshmen who struggle with the marks on the page. These students probably see themselves a slow, stupid, just another blur in the classroom. Because of my own anger and pain, I believe teaching as sacred. I see words — reading, speaking, and writing — as modern magic. It is my intention to see my students and teach them to see themselves and the words on the page in clear, fresh ways.
How can an experience of personal anger from your life make you more tender, more passionate, more compassionate?
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