So this essay, entitled “School is no Place for a Reader,” has been making the rounds in various of my social media lately. And one of the things that really strikes me about it is that the people who are insisting that the reading child is decoding things but not understanding them do not seem to be actually checking whether this is the case or not.
I have seen, with my godson, that it is useful for him to read things he does not yet understand, or does not yet understand completely. There are times when we will be having a conversation in which I explain something (because my godson is a little nerd, and information sharing is love), and he will ponder it and ask whether it’s like x or y in a thing he’s read. And often it is. The fact that he can’t apply it in the moment he’s reading it doesn’t mean that it won’t sink in later. One of my personal examples was the Shel Silverstein poem about the kid who knows how to belch, and how the adults are saying that he will go to “hell or jail or Canada.” And as a small child somewhat post-Vietnam War, this went right past me. But I had it in my mind. There was an epiphany in my twenties, when I went, “OH UNCLE SHEL” because it hit me where that trio came from–not upon a rereading, just a random day when a poem popped into my head and suddenly held more meaning than it had.
But you can check. You can say to the kid, “When it says hell or jail or Canada, why do you think Canada is included in that list?” And then listen to the response. Because there’s more than one reason. Word feel and scansion are important. Perceived distance is important. And so on. But you can check. You don’t have to just loftily say, “She’s 7, she doesn’t understand it really.” The other day my agent said to me in another context, “I think kids are smart,” and I called Alec over to the computer screen and pointed at it and said, “This is why this is the person I want to work with.” Because kids are smart. And it’s worth checking.
Also sometimes kids understand things that their assigned grown-ups don’t. It’s not linear like that. It’s really useful.
I have gotten rid of a lot of my recurring nightmares. My subconscious is a strange and forested place these days, but with fewer nightmares. But one of the ones I don’t seem to be able to shake is that I, at my current age, have been stuck by some trick of paperwork back in school. I am in third grade, or sixth, or whenever. It doesn’t really matter. And they hand me stacks of worksheets to do. In these dreams, I take the adult way out. I try to explain to the people who are responsible that I already know this stuff, that I shouldn’t have to do it again. And there is always the horrible moment in the middle of the dream when I realize that I tried that the first time, and it didn’t work then either.
There are all sorts of things broken about the way kids are schooled. There are also some things broken about the way kids are educated, and the fact that a great many people would conflate the two is pretty high on my list. But one of the things I hang onto, for my godkids and my nieces and my friends’ kids, but also for the kids I don’t know, is that I don’t want them to have that kind of nightmares. I don’t want “education” to mean “stuck and ignored,” and I think in too many cases it does. And this is bad for poor children from families that never notice that their 13-year-old can’t read or add, but it’s also bad for kids from luckier backgrounds, like I was. Like I still am in my dreams. One of the things that makes it worse for everyone is when nobody bothers to find out.