Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dyslexia, Syllabi, Teabagging



My son notices many things I do not. From a moving car he sees a deer a hundred yards away in a field of tall grass (in Washington State); he sees the small hands carved into the artificial rocks on a path at the UHM Art Department; he sees the small blue bird peering out of its hidden perch at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences museum. To take a walk with him is to discover what is there in front of me already. What he does not see well are letters, words, pages of writing. For him, reading involves a lot of guesswork. When he was younger and his books all included large pictures, he would carefully study the pictures and then invent the text, using the first letters of each word as his clues. The results were sometimes astonishingly close to the written story, other times as far away as that deer in the field. When his more literate friend comes over and wants to play Star Wars Mad Libs, Sangha declares that he won't follow the rules. I know he won't because he can't. But I appreciate the imagination it takes to re-invent games so that you can play them. The game of reading is hard to game, however, especially when school is rigged on the side of the good readers.

This summer we sent Sangha to Assets, a school in Honolulu that specializes in teaching dyslexic children. While Sangha mostly told us about his enrichment classes in rocket building, art, and construction, he was especially excited one day that they had talked about "dge" as part of a word. Edge, ledge, knowledge: many a dge lurks in our words. (This reminds me that during Sangha's Russian sounds phase of his aquisition of language, he once assigned the sounds "dge dge deva" to a meal of salmon and rice.") That was about the time he also sounded like a Brooklyn cop muttering under his breath, lots of "disses" and "dats" from the back seat of the family car.

My colleague, Laura Lyons, recommended Maryann Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain . One of the book's revelations (and there are many) is that the act of reading is not natural for human beings. There is no reading center in the brain; instead, reading is an activity made up of other brain functions. Reading is adaptation. For good readers, reading is "bidirectional: we bring our life experiences to the text, and the text changes our experience of life . . . wherever we are led, we are not the same" (160). We adapt to (because of) our reading. Wolf has a marvelous few paragraphs about the ways in which our reading changes over the course of our lives, how particular books mean different things to us at different times. How true. I will often counsel students resistant to a particular text to try it again in ten years, twenty years. The analogue is the way we read our own lives differently over time, or how we read time. If, as Ashbery writes, things acquire a "sheen" in your late thirties, then my sense is our later years reduce the sheen and expand the pathos. Some of us, in any case, move from abstraction to tangibility. But in that tangibility is contained the potential for more feeling. I once detested Williams's wheelbarrow. But it's been growing on me for years now.

My son's gift is that, at 10, his world is tactile, tangible. Reading, however, is an abstraction, difficult as math was to me at his age. His reading of the world is immediate; not so his reading of his books. He's got the wheelbarrow down already, just not Williams's (or anyone's written) rendering of it.

*************

August is the month to spread the syllabic seeds, plan courses, set forth expectations, say no to cell phones, ipods, and texting in class. The syllabus is map to an undiscovered place--not a new continent, but the place you live in already whose details are still hidden. It points, like my son pointing at a bird. But that's why it's a scary thing. For me, the syllabus sets forth the promise of what books and poems can do for a (usually timid) reader; for the student, the syllabus is a mix of possibility and danger (how many tardies do an absence make?) I'll be teaching two courses this Fall, English 273: Creative Writing & Literature, and English 410: Form & Theory of Poetry. The first is an introductory course of recent vintage; I like this course because it institutionalizes the way I like to teach anyway, mixing reading and writing in equal measure. This Spring I taught it with an emphasis on documentary writing, including C.D. Wright's, One Big Self, about Louisiana prisons and Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue. This semester we'll read Eleni Sikelianos's The Book of Jon. We will also be studying and riffing off books by Craig Santos Perez, Kamau Brathwaite, Joe Brainard. And we'll begin by reading and writing haiku, poems wedded to the tangible world. The other course is upper level; in it, students think about writing as they do it. So I've put Lofty Dogmas on the reading list for its essays by poets on poetry. And, for the first time in over a decade, I'll be teaching Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's Volume 1 of Poems for the Millennium. It's still my favorite of their anthologies. I've posted drafts of my syllabi here and will be refining them over the next few days.

***************

I found this video of an "an angry teabagger" at John Aravosis's Americablog.

I remember being in a poetry class with Alfred Corn my senior year of college. Alfred, already very much a New York City poet, hailed originally from Valdosta, Georgia. I drove through Valdosta once; my only vivid memory of the place is finding myself in a restroom with some cheerleaders. Their accents were so strong that I couldn't understand a word. One member of our college class marveled that Alfred did not himself have a southern accent. "I do when I'm angry," he responded.

Mr. Call, in the video above, has an accent. So does the woman who has taught her dog not to accept treats when they are offered by "Obama." Her anger is understated, but clear. Mr. Call's accent is from Maine; the woman's accent is southern. Both of them are angry. Both are obsessed with words. Mr. Call tells the reporter not to call his wife a "call girl." "Don't play with my words," is what he seems to be saying. And yet the jumble that follows, about his being forced to stay in the woods (literally and figuratively); about how "freedom is not free"; about people fighting for the America that's "being taken away" from him. Those words are important to him, but he does not have as much control over them as he does over the probably exhausted joke he's told all of his married life. And the dog who refuses Obama treats has been trained to recognize that some words are taste-less, not worth the reward that he takes happily when it comes from "dad" or "mom." Obama is not part of our family, in other words.

This is not to say that people with accents are haters, of course. But there's something in the intensity of their voices, their uses of words (however recycled and tired those words might be) that enables their accents to draw us in, then fling us back. There's pathos in their attentions to words and phrases--"call girl," "in the woods," "Obama"--precisely because they do not attend to their other words--"freedom," "fight," "my country"--with any awareness of what they might mean to the rest of us. I'm not sure what to make of this stew of anger, accent, and word salad, except to say I'm scared of it.

1 comment:

robinkemp said...

As a Southerner, I'd like to point that an enormously widespread rhetoric of veiled racist comments has developed here since the 1960s. Southerners (black and white) have a highly developed ability to speak and hear implication--the legacy of slavery. It's not OK for whites to say "nigger" outright--but it's OK for whites to talk in vague terms about "those people" who do things "that way" as a test of other whites' own loyalties. I deal with a guy like this every day and it is always unpleasant. Confronting this guy, who knows where I stand, would be completely pointless. The other day, in predominantly white, Republican Cobb County, someone spraypainted a swastika on my black Congressman's office sign. The only thing missing from the "protestors" at the town hall meetings are their sheets and hoods. I expect things to get uglier as these ignorant bigots continue to equate a black President with "communism," "fascism," or any other "anti-American" scare word that Dick Armey's PR firm sends out via neo-McCarthyite TPM.
(Look up "FreedomWorks" on sourcewatch.org for proof.)