There are so many ways to get it wrong, to misread, to come to the pages we assign you—and fail.
Maybe you see the same story, one of challenge and overcoming, in everything we read—whether it’s a novel, a news article, or a chapter in your sociology textbook. Because you need that story, because you understand that story, because you need this college thing to be about something you already know instead of something alien and forbidding. Because there is a story you want to be true.
Or you latch onto one detail that shimmers and mistake it for the main thing the writer is trying to get across. Because you like this little piece more than the others, because you can imagine it, because you find it true.
Maybe you search the text only for the information you need—not for a test, but for life—and disregard the rest.
According to the test that placed you—all of you adults— in this developmental reading class I teach and have taught off and on for years, there’s just one way to read the passage competently. Developmental means someone needs to teach you how to organize ideas into a hierarchical structure. Developmental means you need some time (measured in college credit hours) to come around to it: the authoritative version. The main idea.
Last week I told a room of you the story of reading + me, as an invitation to tell each other the story of reading + you. I have never talked about reading + me before in this setting, this college classroom space that is new to you but completely routine to me by now. This room we gather in every Tuesday and Thursday for ten weeks—this room is supposed to be about you and not about me. But there’s an imbalance, too, in a situation where you are sharing your thoughts and experiences and I am sharing “the material.” The material is not the ironclad truth, and it’s also not a lie. It’s the most honest impersonal thing I can tell you about reading. The material is why I’m here. I cling to the material as a mission. The material is not my story.
Last week I kept my story very short. We lived in this cabin, very far away from anywhere. I projected an old Polaroid of our cabin’s ice-covered timbers. We didn’t get TV or the radio. There was no phone. But we had some books.
I was suddenly embarrassed and didn’t want to alter the you-me balance too much. After sixty seconds I returned to the material. There was more I could have said.
I have seen the kinds of standardized tests that probably placed you here, which we require most entering students to take. They judge whether you can sort out part from whole. The main purpose, the main idea, the overall. They ask you to map a hierarchical structure onto decontextualized voices, ask you to adopt this notion of importance that belongs to some imaginary objective mind. Like the textbooks, they give you no credit for picking out what matters to you.
They ask you to think and reason from a disembodied position.
Among you, there are individuals I remember because your reading problems weren’t problems as much as distances from this imaginary objective mind.
Several years back, we read The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. Jumping forward and back in time and switching perspectives, the book tells a true story of undocumented migrants from Mexico on a perilous journey through the desert. It implicates decades of U.S. border policy and economic policy. What you were supposed to do with the book is create a certain kind of journal, in which the page is divided into two parts. In the left column you were supposed to write a quote. In the right column you were supposed to write anything you thought about the passage, even if those thoughts were simply descriptions of your own confusion.
Z. narrated in vivid present tense moments in her own terrifying childhood flight from Somalia, adding stories she’d heard from family of the contemporary crisis in Yemen and her thoughts about how anything she was learning in college might help them. She wrote about the ways she had been a helpful person by doing uncompensated childcare so that other women in her apartment building could work. She wrote about how hard it had been for her to get a job of any kind, considered whether her traditional dress might be part of that, and confessed her feelings of guilt about having abandoned her education when her father had been a teacher in Somalia. She believed she had failed to carry the tradition of her educated family. She was in school now, she wrote, because she needed a job of any kind, so that she could send money elsewhere.
It was the lowest class we offer. There were many students like Z. who in one way or another didn’t particularly mention the text but followed whatever it had sparked.
M., originally from Ghana but having traversed several nations before arriving in this rainy place, mused on the corruption of border guards everywhere. Worried that I was missing something in the assigned pages and tasked with examining his ability to make sound inferences, I asked him whether he had textual evidence for these assertions, and he said, “No, I just know that.”
F., who cleaned offices all night and showed up to class in the morning bleary-eyed, didn’t mention the text at all but wrote messages of gratitude to his parents for going on a similar journey so that he could be born here.
The meaning they made of the reading was not what a test-maker would make, nor the impersonal meaning I would make. They may not have read much of the book. But I think they did read it without taking away much of what Urrea might have intended. I don’t believe these were failures of reading.
Many of you think of reading as an act of decoding. Letters add up to words, which correspond to things and actions and positions and qualities. If you know the words, you are a good reader. If you don’t know the words, you’re a bad one. When you read aloud, you take the sentence word-by-word, not as a musical whole.
But once we can decode words, reading is usually a matter of context, fitting a word or long strings of them into a personal web of prior understanding. We can’t find revelation or epiphany in print if we don’t know the questions a text is responding to. The out-of-context feeling, the words that latch onto nothing, is why so many of you find reading—reading almost anything—boring. It’s why you stop. The text becomes as slippery as a fish. You let it return to its own sea and turn away from the shore.
A contingent of my colleagues who consider themselves specialists in literature and creative writing, generally at least a decade longer-tenured, carry a particular set of ideas about reading and the reasons why, in their account of the situation, you “can’t read.” The newer of us call them the Last Professors, inheritors of a shrinking world.
When we—Last Professors, Public Servants, and Social Justice Warriors alike—gather to talk about teaching in conference rooms, bars, or cafes, the Last Professors inevitably discuss the ways in which technology—to an unusual degree, they barely use it—is ruining students’ brains—your brains—for real reading, true reading, an activity they believe is withering alongside their own academic currency.
I am always trying to figure out what they mean by “true reading,” and I’m still not quite sure. It’s something they think we all can do, something from which we derive a sense of identity. They think we’re all people who love the canon and never skim and feel some intrinsic connection to the moves of literary analysis. They assume their thoughts on reading are not just shared, but self-evident. They misread us by being unable to imagine a perspective different from theirs.
We design systems and policies and processes based on what we assume about others. We read each other. And college, at least this huge community college where I work, sometimes feels like a conglomeration of mismatched assumptions, a nexus of misreading.
You come here assuming we are offering you a credential that will get you the kind of higher-wage job that, in many cases, no one in your family has held. You would like to be a nurse. You would like to be a firefighter. You would like to be a pharmacy technician. You would like to be a dental hygienist. You are young and you often still live at home with younger siblings you care for and grandparents you translate for when they need to go to the doctor. You are different now than you used to be. When I first started teaching here, in the recesses of the Great Recession, many of you were older and displaced from working life. You’d worked in construction, you’d worked at the port, you’d worked in an office, you’d worked in retail. Or you’d manufactured drugs and/or sold them, and spent your adulthood in the carceral system—a life “on paper.” You never imagined that you might wind up here in college, and when I asked you, as I often asked you, what you thought college was for, you would say it was to read, think, experience other perspectives, and develop yourself. You’d lived a grown-up life outside school, and so you knew this kind of time, these kinds of conversations, would not necessarily come again.
Now you’ve usually arrived directly from high school rather than prison or the unemployment office, and you understand college as the next step in a gauntlet of somewhat arbitrary obstacles to higher-wage work and adulthood. But what we offer does not match your expectations. We are not what you assume. Statistically, very few of you will obtain a credential of any kind from us—and we are a good community college, well resourced and deeply embedded in the life of our city, helmed by the best in the business.
In fact, a two-year nursing degree requires not just perfect academic performance but sometimes years of waiting to lottery into a very small program. And if you are among the few who persist and attain a miscellaneous associate’s degree, your credential may or may not lead straightforwardly to the kind of job you seek, at least not here. On LinkedIn I am connected to one of the most tenacious students I’ve ever had, who dropped out of middle school when she became pregnant at fourteen. At thirty-six with three children, she entered a GED program and continued with all due speed until she had an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s degree. She was smart, unusually persistent, and unusually kind. She burned with some kind of bright fire. Today she is working as a home health aide, a job she was doing before she started at my college.
You come here to get something you’re not likely to get, and if you do get it, the degree you’re holding may not be what you thought it was.
We as a faculty who teach prerequisite English classes—if you take us as the sum of our curricula and textbooks and public speech—do not see ourselves as preparing you for work. No, we are preparing you to make and understand arguments on a fictive plane of reason. We are trying to instill a set of cultural practices that we imagine as elevating and accessible only through higher ed. We are preparing you for something like Athenian democracy. Even we, now, would have to admit if you pressed us that this setting we imagine, this context the curriculum assumes, bears little resemblance to anything you might actually experience.
You never press us. But these classes at their worst feel like a two-hour awkward moment, the kind that comes from asking someone to pay more than a thing is worth.
In the story of me and reading, there is more that I could tell you. When I was born, my parents were moving from remote place to remote place, tents and cabins, with exactly what their pickup could hold. When I was two, we lived in a trailer and then a cabin, miles outside of Granite, Oregon, a ghost town. (Would you know that phrase, ghost town? In class I would not use it.) My father was managing a small gold mine and we lived near it and far from anywhere else. This was a way of living my parents had chosen years before when it was just the two of them, but by the Granite years it was also a condition they’d slid into by following their trajectory from opportunity to disappointment to the next available thing. Children did not fit into this life—there were never any others except for us—but that was beside the point.
In the fall when I was eighteen months old and my mom was pregnant with my brother, we moved into a trailer outside the ghost town and it snowed and snowed. My dad could get to the mine site on foot, but my mom and I were snowed in. There was no getting out, no one to talk to, no telephone, no radio. She ran the heat full blast all day to unfreeze the pipes so that water would flow for an hour in the afternoon, long enough to bathe me at least before the temperature dropped and the pipes froze again.
But we had some books sent by my grandmother, a school librarian in Portland. And my mother read them to me over and over and over. Many of them were English. From their pieces I built a landscape in my head of gentility and proximity. I heard Paddington Station and understood that somewhere there were trains that could take you to other places. The trains gathered and you could just get on. I heard about tea parties and asked if we could invite the miners over for some dignity and repose. I pictured the Hundred Acre Wood, a dreamed-of collection of friends who might visit one another and do things together. The world I built in my head didn’t map onto the icicled trailer or the mud field that surrounded us in spring. But it gave me a place I could go.
I saw pictures of a bear on a department store shelf who was missing a button on his overalls and because of this, while the toys around him were chosen, he remained unwanted. This story is supposed to be about the girl who found him and loved him anyway and brought him home to an apartment—a dwelling which, when my mom told me about it, spoke of so much proximity to other families that I could barely imagine it. But I could never get over the idea that maybe, because of something about yourself that you couldn’t fix, you might be passed over again and again, and that if someone did choose you, it would be despite. Corduroy kept me up at night.
And maybe one reason I don’t want to tell you the whole story, of which this is only a part, is that it was a long time before I was around people whose houses were filled with books. And for that long time, reading—and all that goes with it—became the thing about myself that I couldn’t fix or hide for very long. We went to town every so often for groceries, an hours-long trip over dirt roads or mud roads, or snow and ice. If I saw a child, I ran up to them and began to repeat the many books I’d memorized. I couldn’t imagine that they didn’t also know them. But I knew from their reaction, the turning away, that I was illegible.
It feels unseemly to share with you the material and social scarcity of places I have lived when I have read your essays about houselessness in childhood and after, when I have read your essays about the large families you still live with in very small spaces, when I have read your essays about mold and broken windows, when I have read your essays about the parents whose addictions prevented them from caring for you. It feels inappropriate to glory in the ways in which books filled the tents and trailers and cabins and eventually the houses of my youth—this flicker of class privilege in what was often an experience of social deprivation—in the ways that they almost certainly (we know from statistics) did not fill yours.
But I want you to know that what began in the trailer continued through small towns and into college and beyond and beyond. No matter where we lived, my mom got Harpers and The New Yorker, which I would decipher on long afternoons. When we finally moved to a place where I could walk to the library after school, I did. I read things from other times and places and experiences, texts whose authors did not imagine me as their audience. And I could make guesses about the worlds they painted, the assumptions they held, the community of people in which they might make sense. Because I read, I ended up far from where I started. Because I read, I knew what kind of self to become, a self who might find others. I became good at reading a situation and becoming the kind of self that the situation demanded. I became very good—maybe too good—at making myself legible.
At the college, we earnestly attend and coordinate events about difference, microaggressions, how to be less of an asshole in an environment where difference ought to be assumed. The Last Professors attend never to rarely. Their comments about this discourse suggest that they see it as some kind of interloper at their academic party, an unwelcome and poorly developed challenger to an authoritative and liberal account of the world.
And sure, this is a jargon-filled and sometimes dogmatic discourse with a nearly-religious tenor. It’s not surprising that it doesn’t appeal to the aging monocultural literati or their dwindling cadre of proteges.
These events often recount people misreading others, the misreading exposing a bad story, an unintelligent story, a wrong story about who they are or might be. The African American colleague too-often asked what they think of the work of Ta Nehisi Coates. The Boricua colleague asked if she’s “illegal.” The Cherokee colleague approached by a career Sasquatch enthusiast looking to bond.
We are reading each other all the time—and misreading because our network of prior understanding is faulty. We are misreading because we hold long, bad assumptions about the way things are. You fail the reading comprehension tests, I believe, because you fail to identify and reproduce the authoritative version. We fail to be less asshole-ish to each other and to you because we relentlessly fail to question the authoritative version we inherited from so many years of fidelity to formal education, careers spent in rooms where we talk and no one questions us.
When I ask you what it means to really read, you say, “When you read and understand. Like really understand.” And what does that mean, I ask? Does it mean getting the test question right? Does it mean sorting main idea from supporting details, figuring out what belongs underneath what? Does it mean standing under the text while it looms like a monument? Standing under the power of whomever put this on the syllabus and marked it required?
I’m tired of trying to help you understand. I’m tired of the logic that says you must make the same sense of a thing that an authoritative grown-up would make of it. I’m tired of the disembodied, out-of-context intellect I am supposed to represent. I am tired of the habits I’m supposed to instill, habits which in certain lights look like the tools of disembodiment and remove that allow us to competently read an assigned text while misreading each other.
If we travel this gravel road of the required reading together—we have this time together, so we might as well try to do the reading—we will stand under nothing but the tress alongside or the hawk circling overhead. Your trees will not be my trees, your hawk not my hawk. None of you have been to where I’m from. Your road may be a divided highway; your road may be a path in the sand. I may roll right past the supporting detail, the broken glass or flicked cigarette, that ignites your dry grass into wildfire. But I hope you’ll consider telling me about the shape the flames make in their smolder, the sparks on wind. I’ll keep looking for the signs of your fire. I’ll scan the horizon for tendrils of far-off smoke.
Jessica Johnson is a community college instructor in the Pacific Northwest. Her poems and essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Tin House, The Paris Review, Harvard Review, and Brain, Child, among others. She’s working on a memoir that includes some scenes from this essay.
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 email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.