*This piece was originally written as an assignment for one of my fancy graduate classes.*
Literacy had never been a question for me. The Oxford Dictionary, which automatically makes this essay legitimate, defines literacy as simply being able to read and write, or to be knowledgeable in a specific area (example: computer literacy). This was the definition I had always assumed was the universal norm. Anyone who could read and write anything was literate. But no. My first days of grad school were inundated with this focus on literacy. I was a grad student. I was a poster child for literacy. Then they made me buy a book full of articles by pretentious academics such as Edward P.J. Corbett and James Berlin that dared to challenge what being literate truly meant.
I am literate, or so I think. After writing two previous literacy narratives for my other classes this semester, I’m starting to question where I actually fall on the literacy scale between “vegetable” and “philosophical genius.” I would dare say the high percentage of people that know me would put me on the side closer to “philosophical genius,” but as I continue to read these essays, question the world I thought I knew, and spend time around people who are vastly smarter than I am, I may be somewhere in the middle – more useful than a potato, but highly inferior to a Rhodes Scholar.
As I’ve traveled through life, I’ve slowly begun to figure out what it truly means to be literate (at least in my opinion). I can only speak for myself and how I see things through my own heavily near-sighted eyes, but this is how I’ve come to understand literacy.
6. 1991-1993: The Early Years
Let’s go ahead and get one thing straight here: I was an awesome little kid. I was a borderline superhero. When I was two, I identified a stealth bomber flying overhead before my mom could even hear it fly past. Radar can’t even do that. I sat in her shopping cart as we went down the medicine aisle in Wal-Mart shouting out bottles of Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen. I watched the Weather Channel with my grandparents and identified every state on the map.
Shall I rub it in some more? I was reading on a sixth grade level by the time I was four (I think that’s an accomplishment). My mom got me tested to see if I was gifted. That’s how awesome I was. However, I wasn’t considered literate yet. I had a problem with writing my name backwards (I went by “Jay” to my family, so I wrote my name as “Yaj”). I don’t know what that said about me psychologically, and to be honest, it didn’t matter. I was four. You don’t waste time psychoanalyzing four-year-olds unless they’ve just murdered their parents.
I was that kid who watched the Discovery Channel and ESPN rather than the Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I learned by watching and doing. Prime example: I taught myself to play baseball. I would spend my mornings watching SportsCenter highlights. I learned to throw, catch, and hit a baseball before I ever stepped on a field. That’s where I got tripped up. When I started playing tee ball, all of the coach’s instructions went way over my head because I already knew these things, but didn’t actually know the fundamental processes that took place in order to actually learn how to do it. It made me doubt myself and question what I thought I knew (yes, my little four-year-old brain was questioning things like this).
Regardless, my parents saw my potential and, as all good parents do (and as is required by law), they sent me to school. It was here where my curiosity expanded and my literacy grew.
5. 1994-1998: The Montessori Years
I didn’t go to a traditional public school. My first school years were spent in a Montessori school. If you’re unfamiliar with their set-up, Montessori schools are for curious, engaged kids who like learning. We weren’t confined to desks and we had a list of assignments that we had to complete by the end of each week. We could roam around the classroom and do various activities because everything in the classroom had some sort of learning component to them. Because I was an awesome little kid (have I made that point clear yet?) I had all my assignments finished by lunchtime every Monday, which left me four and a half days to screw around with whatever I wanted. My weeks generally consisted of putting Alka-Seltzer in plastic film containers and watching them explode into the air, reading every book on the shelf (and other classrooms’ shelves), and drawing maps. Yes, I was a six-year old Gerardus Mercator.
Every year I drew maps of all six major continents. I went down to the details, too. Boarders, captials, major cities, lakes, and rivers – every year from K5 through the third grade. I was a knowledge sponge. To this day I can tell you where 95% of all countries are, and 75% of their capitals. I could have told you the starting lineups for three-quarters of every baseball team in the early 90s. I was, and still am, a wealth of fairly useless knowledge. But none of that really mattered when it came to my literacy.
I took in everything around me that the world had to offer and stored it away to my own imagination. But that was it. I was localized. I knew the world around me but I took it at face value. And I stayed that way for a long time.
4. 1999-2003: The Early “Faith” Years
Because Montessori only went through the third grade, I was forced to switch schools. Because my parents didn’t love me anymore, I was sent to Faith Christian Academy, a Christian school with zero opportunity for academic or athletic scholarships when the time came to need them. The transition was immense. I had to sit in my desk all day. I had to do all of my assignments before the next class started or else take them home. I had to make new friends. It was a lot for my young mind to adjust to. The biggest change was that I quit reading. I lost the desire to do it. I don’t know if it was the change from freedom to a mildew-infested old church building, or the emergence of mind-numbing diversions such as Gameboys and Pokémon (don’t you dare judge me). Either way, my attention was diverted. Video games and dial up internet diverted my attention and engaged my imagination in a different way, and I was okay with that.
My grades never suffered. I still dominated my schoolwork. When my school banned Pokémon because they said it promoted evolution, I began writing during my free time. Mrs. Marshall, my composition teacher in fifth and sixth grade, raved at my creativity as if such a thing was impossible for someone that age. I wrote ridiculous, highly detailed stories. I had fully developed characters, such as Tom, Bill, Puffy Cheeks, and Bloody Nose Man. But the problem, and I didn’t realize it at the time, was that I was completely self-centered. The world I knew had closed in around me and I had become conditioned to only see the localized world I lived in every day and disregarded the rest of the outside world.
The world I knew was confined to the area I was allowed to see. I was conditioned to believe that the world around me was evil and I had no business learning about it. The people in charge at Faith were old-fashioned. They were like Bobby Boucher’s mother from Waterboy.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing the Christian religion because I still hold to that faith. But what Nickleback is to rock music, these people are to the Christian faith. Logically, it all had to come to a breaking point, right?
3. 2004-2008: The High School Years
By the time high school came around, I had become the typical angsty teenager struggling to cope with raging hormones and being misunderstood by everyone over the age of 25. I wrote poetry. Well, they were technically lyrics because they didn’t have traditional poetic rhythm. I didn’t care. My freshman and sophomore years were spent furiously throwing words on a paper in conjunction with a melody I had in my head. I would go on the Internet and post them for people to see and tell me how awesome I was. Then a teacher at school found them and everything came to a screeching halt.
I almost got expelled for having a MySpace page. We all had one, and three students actually did get kicked out. My parents and I were called into a meeting with the principal who said in a roundabout way that I was dangerous; but, I could be a “blessing” if my thought process was altered. In a span of roughly ten years I had gone from being perceived as being academically gifted to crazy and suicidal (I wasn’t, really).
After that, I was censored. All of my thoughts were locked away for only my eyes to see because the school threatened to expel me if I ever posted anything ever again. For the rest of high school, I continued to write. I switched between lyrics (because I was certain I was going to be a rock star one day) and creative writing. I brought Puffy Cheeks and Bloody Nose Man back to life and wrote a current event satire (based on the world in 2006) involving Al Gore and global warming. I then wrote a Pilgrim’s Progress-style allegory of my high school life because I saw myself as a prisoner being held captive by evil authoritative figures. I was that weird kid.
But for the first time, I was consciously aware of a world beyond the one I knew. As the allegory I wrote continued to grow, I began to feel more like I truly was an inmate in the prison I was portraying, stuck in this never-ending, seemingly losing battle, struggling to get to the end. I realized there was more to the world than the confined area I lived in. I was waiting for my opportunity to break free and see the world that I was certain was much better than this.
2. 2008-2011: The College Years
When I graduated, the first thing I did was create a Facebook account (MySpace was bleeding out by 2008). All of the words I had been banned from saying and writing were free again. I called out everyone I felt had done me wrong. My focus had shifted over time from being a good, obedient student to being this activist for a cause that had no far-reaching effect. College life put everything into perspective.
I started a blog. Any time I felt the need to vent, I went there. I had the freedom to do so. Every week for the first two years of college, I would be hit with an epiphany or five about anything and everything under the sun. It didn’t matter what the subject was (granted, most of the subjects in the beginning were religiously based because that was all I knew). I bloomed philosophically as I emerged from a period of repression that rivaled the Dark Ages. As I continued to mature, it was the blog that basically tracked my growth as a person. But that was only one side of the coin.
Obviously, I could never get away with writing papers in college if I treated them like my blog (except for this paper. Ironic, huh?). All I did was change how I thought. I adapted to my audience. One of the biggest differences between college and high school (that I’ve found) is that in high school, you are actually learning new things; however, in college, a lot of the time you are learning things you already knew, but never actually learned. College basically tells you how you walk, not how to walk. David Bartholomae’s essay “Inventing the Univserse” is a good example. His essay talks about writing like the experts in the field you’re writing on, which is what I try to do because I’ve always learned by imitating.
Because of my creative writing background, I am always aware of who my audience is. When the issue of literacy comes into play, especially the idea of college literacy, I am always aware of the social conventions that are in place and I shape my work around those conventions. The world we know is made up of symbols. It is how we communicate. Every letter on this page is nothing more than a symbol. Each letter has a corresponding sound, that when put together with other letters, makes a sound with an attributed meaning to which we connect meanings to other symbols and objects.
Lester Faigley’s essay “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal” looks at different ways people write and communicate. Faigley’s observations on the social view are exactly how I approach writing. I cannot write a paper about the Holocaust and refer to it as Christmas. Not only is that egregiously insensitive, but it also conflicts with the meanings we have attributed to those words. It doesn’t matter if I’ve always known the Holocaust as Christmas (I haven’t), my audience would have no idea what I was talking about (at the very least they’d question my parents about their holiday traditions).
Once I got to my senior year of college, not only was the burden of repression far removed from my shoulders, but I realized I wasn’t ready for the real world. I also wanted to teach, but my severe disdain for small children forced me into graduate school to ensure that I could teach more level-headed minds. That’s where I am today.
1. Present Day: Graduate School
This focus on my literacy is weird, and my definition is still a work in progress. It’s easy to see how my understanding of literacy has changed. As I spend more time around the people I work with, I realize how underprivileged and lacking I am. Unlike every graduate student ever, I have yet to visit a foreign country. I’ve only been as far north as Pennsylvania, as far south as Miami, and as far west as Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It’s sad, I know. But I’ve always been a curious learner. I try many different things. I get to a level of comfort and move on to something new. Because I have yet to travel the world, I have focused my literacy on skills that most academic people think are a waste of time. I blog. I podcast. I play drums, guitar, and every sport ever invented – basically anything the pretentious academic minds would deem un-academic. It is my way that I adapt to different environments.
The social conventions that dictate how we communicate and perceive the world determine our literacy level for that present moment. If we go to another country, like India for example, we will not be as culturally literate as those who live there, regardless of how much we’ve studied and prepared for the trip. We will still be enslaved to our own cultural standards. As smart as we may be, we will be somewhat dumber than those around us until we are finally able to adapt. Literacy has, and likely always will be, a measure of one’s intelligence. Literacy goes beyond one’s ability to read and write. It extends to one’s ability to understand and adapt to any given situation. The more you surround yourself with diverse situations, the more literate you become.
Whenever I write, which I try to do whenever the motivation strikes or I find the time, I have a unique style that mirrors my personality. I write what I feel. I’m a Romantic (so Ross Winterowd can suck it). The words I use are connected to how I know my audience will perceive me. I am not dumbing myself down, nor am I tapping into my highest academic vocabulary. I have a middle ground where I can convey my thoughts as accurately as possible. The same principle applies to whatever I do. I know I will never be the best at what I do, but if I can do it effectively, then I know I am contributing to the benefit of others.
To me, the best indicators of one’s literacy level are how well we adapt to and understand any standard and audience. The faster and more effectively we can do that, the more literate we are. I went from being completely self-centered in my understanding of the world to becoming completely aware of my audience and adapting to their comfort level. Just because I use words like “ain’t” or “fer real” in every day speech doesn’t mean I’m dumb or grammatically ignorant. I am not outstandingly literate. It takes some time for me to adjust to certain situations and learn my audience. But I am a chameleon. In time, I adapt to my environment.