Image Credit: Camile Corot, A Woman Reading
It’s May 10, 2019, and it’s a sweltering evening in middle Georgia—specifically Milledgeville, Georgia—home of Flannery O’Connor (a Georgia College and State University alumni is expected to plug this information into every conversation or narrative) and a public liberal arts university. Think about the kind of day when mosquitoes photobomb graduation pictures. Outside of the Centennial Center, I wonder if I am sweating too much on my dry-clean-only, blue-like-ocean-waves dress. Probably. My cap clings to my forehead, and I don’t know where I’m going. Other students mill around the sidewalk, talking to their loved ones or themselves as they try to find the specific entrance for their respective college’s graduation line. Mama won’t stop apologizing for not buying me flowers. At last, I tell Mama that I need to go inside and find where the College of Arts & Sciences line starts. I reassure her that, yes, she can survive the next few hours with Jerry (my dad) and his parents. I give her a quick kiss and holler, “Bye!!!” as I make a run for it before she can persuade me to stay. I step inside the building. Ah, air conditioning blows across my face. Relief.
Now, let me take a step back and be a little meta. Do you see what I did in that opening paragraph? How I used as many of the five senses as possible? I addressed the essential questions that John Sirmans instructed his fall 2018 Creative Nonfiction Workshop to answer when they wrote essays: Who? What? When? Where? Why? All of these writing techniques I’ve pointed out underscore how my literacy is constantly broadening, even as a graduate student.
While my literacy began when Mama read to me in the 1990s, it continued to develop as I went to elementary school and read books on my own for the first time; became a moody teenager who loved confessional poets and British women writers; and later pursued higher education, studying the poets and writers I admired, even learning how to write narratives (see the paragraph above). Now, at twenty-seven, I’m still learning about reading and writing. My literacy keeps changing, and now I’m responsible for influencing others’ literacy.
Back to that mosquito-infested May day, when I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing. I walked across the stage and moved closer to my ultimate goal: becoming a college English professor. Subconsciously, I’ve been working toward it ever since I was a little girl who loved words.
excerpt from Scenes from My Childhood
Every afternoon, in our laundry room, I teach
my imaginary students. I pass out worksheets,
extra copies Mrs. Ingram gives me; I write
on my mini whiteboard; I sit in my chair
that announces, I am Ms. Barron. I call roll,
names I create. My students admire
their seven-year-old teacher.
Everything is good. Everyone is good.
Now that I have taught real (not imaginary) students, I understand that my literacy varies from my theirs. In October 2017, during the first semester I taught first-year composition, I invited students to an event, Inspired Georgia Poetry Reading, on campus. Several poets, including my thesis advisor, shared their work at the on-campus art museum. The day after, I saw one of my students who attended the event. I asked him if he enjoyed it.
“Yeah, in high school, all I read were poems by old, white dudes. Last night, I actually understood the poetry. I didn’t know I could.”
I laughed at his answer. In reality, I had mistakenly assumed my students read various poets from diverse backgrounds. I had forgotten that their younger selves may not have been inclined to explore the poetry world. My teenage self went out and found female poets, including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, to read.
When I read Plath’s poetry, I admired her craft and unflinching honesty. I wanted to write imagistic poems with red poppies, fog-riddled hills, and red-haired goddesses. Little did I know, I would one day teach Plath’s poetry to my peers in my Honors American Modernism course and then to my own students only a few years later. Little did I know, I would wear my Sylvia Plath earrings to English 1102, and one student would include a description of them in her end-of-semester reflection.
Sometimes my literacy will be different from my students’, and sometimes they’ll appreciate this difference. Their literacy will change because of it. They may find their own Sylvia Plath.
Fast forward to spring 2019, when I had just assigned my English 1102 students to read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” (See, O’Connor appears everywhere.)
When I reread the short story to prepare for class, I thought back to the first time I read O’Connor in Dr. Kristin Kelly’s Honors American Literature course, where T.S. Eliot’s picture appeared on the tanned, cardstock-printed syllabus. Reading O’Connor, I laughed out loud. But the violence! To my one-year-into-college mind, I couldn’t believe the ending.
Well, I didn’t expect my students to be shocked. I knew my students were different. They would understand the grandmother’s “moment of grace,” as O’Connor scholars call it. They would see the foreshadowing and the biblical allusions! They would read O’Connor’s mini biography that appeared above the short story in their textbook. (Because students read more than they are supposed to!)
Cut to the day my class meets. After I give students discussion questions and tell them to disperse into groups, I begin making my way around the room. I share some quick facts about O’Connor and the short story. Various questions shoot out of my students’ mouths:
Her house is in Milledgeville?
Why does everybody die?
Why didn’t Grandmother keep her mouth shut?
I think, “Okay, they’re noting great plot points. But why aren’t they delving deeper? Why aren’t they understanding O’Connor’s message?”
That was five months ago. Now, I understand that I need to survey the prior knowledge with which students enter my classroom. I need to ask them what they know about writing and reading, or what they want to learn about writing and reading. Then, I can gauge whether or not they’re ready for O’Connor and her misfits. And, if they’re not, I can figure out a lesson to prepare them for more challenging reading.
In the past, I’ve encouraged my students to think of writing as a process. I assign Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” because she’s accessible to students (it’s an essay that’s fun to read!), and she makes a good argument for writing multiple drafts. Students love to hear me say “shitty” in class, but they also love that the “shitty first draft” takes off the pressure to be perfect. When students question whether or not I want their drafts to be “shitty,” I tell them it’s fine. Make grammatical mistakes! Ignore the critical voice inside of your head! You can fix the draft later!
Well, I should practice what I preach. It wasn’t until I taught Lamott’s essay that I realized I encourage my students to practice this philosophy, but I don’t follow it myself. I romanticize the writing process. I want to be the female John Keats who writes odes underneath trees and hears nightingales sing whilst sitting beside a quiet pond.
For the past several years, I have been hyper aware of my literacy. Sometime during my undergraduate program, I found out that my maternal grandfather’s education culminated in the second grade. As I write this narrative, I think back to my days in the second grade. I remember making a timeline of significant events in my life up to that point. On a white poster board, pictures appeared, where I sat on my sister’s lap in front of the Christmas tree when I was a baby, or I sat on a bicycle for the first time. In the second grade, I hadn’t yet discovered poetry, which would become an art form and a therapeutic outlet for me. I hadn’t yet read Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, or Charlotte Bronte, female writers who were pivotal in my decision to become an English major. I didn’t know the transformative power of literature, which I would one day share with my own students.
It wasn’t my grandfather’s fault that his parents, who were ill, needed him at home, but his illiteracy caused him to miss out on so much learning. In school, what had he read, if anything at all? He wouldn’t even have been able to write a literacy narrative, given that Mama had to write anything he needed written.
I wish I had met him, so I could share all of the books and poems and words that I love. At his and my grandmother’s home in Flowery Branch, Georgia, I would have sat down with him on the living room couch. I would have told him to relax and listen while I read him a young woman’s story, a young woman who reads a book about birds, who passes out in a red room, who discovers a mad woman in an attic, who falls in love, who decides her own fate.
It’s fifth grade, and we’re reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Mrs. Scott asks the class to discuss the poem’s famous last lines. I look around our classroom. No one raises their hand. I think, “I know this answer!” I’m ever the introverted student, but my feelings about this poem eclipse my anxiety about public speaking, and I raise my hand with record speed. Mrs. Scott—who cannot be more surprised than I am by my actions—calls on me.
“It’s about making a choice!” (Maybe I don’t yell with the force of the exclamation point I’ve included here, but I’m nevertheless excited to share my answer.)
When she nods with approval, I think that I am a rockstar. I blush red when she asks me about something science related, but a poetry question? I can answer it.
Later that year, I sit in the elementary-school library and read Emily Dickinson’s poetry, probably “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” I think, “Yes, Emily Dickinson knows me.”
A poet from Massachusetts, who supposedly wore white all of the time, reached a fifth grader at Flowery Branch Elementary School in northeast Georgia. I wonder what else I thought about Dickinson that day in the library. I know what I would think now. If Dickinson can do that with words, what can I do with them?
Imagine a little girl, nestled beside her mama. She is five years old. Her mama and sissy make up her entire world. Mama reads to her at night before bed. Suddenly, she wants to read all day. She wants to disappear into the worlds inside of books. She wants to be a princess. She wants to explore secret gardens. She doesn’t know that one day, she will write down all of the words inside of her head. She will be a writer.
excerpt from Scenes from My Childhood
At night, Mama reads to me A Little Princess
or The Secret Garden. I curl under the quilt
Granny sewed by hand, and I fit in the crook of Mama’s
elbow. I am her baby, her second born, her little girl.
She reads to me and tears well in my eyes
when the Little Princess and her father say goodbye.
Mama smells like laundry detergent and sunshine.
Brittany J. Barron earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Georgia College, where she wrote poems about mad girls. Her poetry has appeared inStill, a journal dedicated to publishing Southern-Appalachian writers; Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk; and The Examined Life Journal. Born and raised in northeast Georgia, she is still getting used to living in Tallahassee, Florida (seventeen miles from the Georgia/Florida border!), where she is a Ph.D. student in Literature at Florida State University. Brittany teaches first-year composition by day and writes poetry (and eventually will write a dissertation) by night.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.