Reading and writing have both played significant roles in my life. I don’t remember when I first learned to read, but I do have very early memories of my mom reading to my siblings and me. We read the Book of Mormon early each morning as a family. We read scripture stories on Sundays and during Family Home Evening. At night, we read picture books. One of my favorite authors was Bill Peet. His illustrations were always so engaging, and his stories were full of adventure and excitement. Cowardly Clyde, Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent, How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, and The Whingdingdilly were among my very favorites.
Stories were always an integral part of family’s interactions together. One of my favorite bedtime activities was listening to my dad’s Mary, Sarah, and Carl stories. These were the names of three fictitious characters that were about the same age as my older sister L’Anita, my younger sister Bethany, and me. These curious children had some of the most grand and exciting adventures together! They lived in the countryside, isolated from civilization, so there were always fun adventures to be had. They loved to explore and would often embark on day-long outings in hopes of discovering secret places and hidden treasures. These stories were always so magical to me, and they were the foundation upon which my love for reading and writing grew.
You can imagine how exciting it was for me to be able to read these stories and others on my own! Some of the first books I ever read were the Frog and Toad books. Oh, how I loved these two warty friends! I always wished that I could join them on their escapades. Probably my most favorite book in elementary school, though, was Shiloh. Dogs were my favorite animal, so this heart-warming dog tale was very near and dear to my heart. I loved my life as a child, but being able to read suddenly opened up worlds without number into which I could enter and be a part of. I felt as if Shiloh was my own dog and that I was the one having all the adventures with him. I remember riding right alongside Harry Potter during a Quidditch match and casting spells myself at the dreadfully annoying Draco Malfoy. Reading was especially rewarding during difficult days. Bad days never lasted very long because I could escape into someone else’s life and enjoy the excitement and fun of their experiences. And even though I eventually had to re-enter reality, much of the joy I experienced with my fictitious friends lingered with me.
My love for reading eventually grew into a love for writing. My experiences with the stories I’d read expanded my imagination, and I began creating stories and characters of my own. My writing abilities expanded to poetry, as well. In fourth grade, I wrote a poem and entered it into a literary contest. The theme was “Anything is Possible.” I actually remember the poem! It went something like this:
“I wish I could fly in the sky so high
And see all the beautiful things go by.
I wish I could have the wings of the things
That fly in the sky so high.
I wish I could fly! I wish I could fly!
Anything is possible, so why can’t I?”
Well, I won first place! I received a plaque with my name on it and was absolutely thrilled. This experience boosted my confidence in my writing abilities, and I continued to compose. In seventh grade, I entered another poem into a literary contest and was awarded again, this time with a publication of my work in a collection of literature written by students of all grade levels. I was so excited to be a published writer!
As I’ve grown older, my writing experiences have unfortunately been increasingly disappointing. I feel that the older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve been allowed to use creativity and imagination in my writing. In high school, my writing opportunities consisted of research papers and formal essays. Employing humor and creativity in my work was frowned upon, and I was even penalized at times for being too “informal.” Writing began to feel more like a chore than a chance to create something special and unique. I felt like my childlike imagination was being choked away by weeds of robotic formality with its unnatural tones and forced use of advanced vocabulary. The voice in my writing was not my own, and I felt like I was writing what the teacher wanted me to write rather than what I felt naturally inclined to.
My reading experiences were very similar. No longer was I allowed to read engaging stories that taught important lessons and principles while masterfully employing the use of various literary techniques and functions. Instead, I had to read the “classics,” books that, in my mind, were entirely incapable of communicating any messages to me. I tried tirelessly to dig through these stories to find meaning and purpose. I labored painstakingly to discover the “main ideas” the author was trying to communicate. But in the end, there were only specific answers that were acceptable. And guess who decided what answers were acceptable or not; that’s right, my teacher. Again, there seemed to be no room for my imagination to direct me to my own personal discoveries. I was forced to conform to a specific train of thought and understanding about literature.
These experiences and many others have shaped the way I view literacy now. I’ve developed through these experiences a belief that the purpose of literature is ideally to establish a connection between the writer and the reader. After all, the intent of most writers is to communicate something to their readers. There are any number of ways these connections can be made. Because each person is unique and different, the connections made between writers and readers are likely different for everyone. Literacy, therefore, is simply the ability to connect with literature. Being able to read a work and come away having learned something is, in my mind, a manifestation of literacy. As a child, I learned so much from Bill Peet’s stories. I was literate! Sometimes the messages we understand are different from those that others do. They may even be different than the ones the writer was originally trying to communicate, but that doesn’t mean the reader is not literate. Let me use an example to illustrate what I mean. I have often studied the scriptures with the intent to discover principles that I can apply into my life that will help me become more like the Savior. I may be reading about the importance of keeping the law of chastity, but come away feeling that I need to serve others more. The message I gleaned from my study was completely different from the message being taught by an ancient prophet. Does this mean that I am not literate, that I am not capable of understanding what the author was trying to say? Of course not! I was still successful in meaningfully connecting with the literature I was reading. This is literacy.
People cannot be forced to be literate in the same way. I hope that I, as a teacher, can learn to avoid forcing my students to learn from literature the things that I want them to learn. Instead, I hope to be able to teach them how to make their own discoveries in their experiences with reading and writing and use what they learn in meaningful ways.