The enormous creature formerly known as Busytot can read!! When he started school last September he could make out his own name, that of his friend Jack, and STOP signs. Now he can fluently lecture from his favourite books, write his own thank you notes, and sound out those billboards on the side of the highway advertising dubious adult emporia. Good question young man: what is an emporium, anyway? Ask your father.
It’s a magical process, the breakthrough to literacy. It happened mainly offstage and during school hours, thanks to his very sweet teacher and a literacy initiative, called, funnily enough, Breakthrough To Literacy.
The whole class – a mixed bunch of five to seven year olds – spends the whole school morning working on reading and writing. They read to each other, to the teacher, and along with a computer version of the day's story, then they take home photocopied versions of the books to keep. I was pleased to spot Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy among the authors, more than once.
They also collectively write and illustrate books about every field trip and major class activity, and write in their journals every day. There’s a wall of sight-words to help with spelling, but the kids are also encouraged to charge ahead and write phonetically just to get their ideas down. This leads to some fantastic phonetic innovations – Busyboy himself is very keen on adventures starring villainous bad giz and fearsome stinging squerp’yens (note the learned apostrophe), and his friend Lyle specializes in Star Wars fanfic that features Obi 1 Knowbi getting repeatedly nokt out by Dark Vata.
I’m all in favour of Shksprean spelling to get things rolling, especially because it helps break the twin tyrannies of the Blank Page and the Dictionary, both of which can be horribly intimidating to children at either end of the skill spectrum. But school has proven to be normative in other, more surprising ways.
After a discussion at school about the dialectical double negative beloved of songwriters everywhere (ain't got no/ can't get no/ she ain't nuthin' but a...), Busyboy came home and sternly informed his father that he would need to rewrite the lyrics of the Daddy Song.
The Daddy Song? You know the one. Every house has a different version of this classic endless lullaby, but it goes something like "Hush little baby, don’t say a word/ Momma or Daddy’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don’t mock/ Daddy's gonna knit you a rugby sock..." and so on.
(Our version rhymes "If that baseball cap don't go on backward" with a reference to the disgraced Senator Packwood, for inscrutable reasons known only to Daddy, who is an American politics buff.)
Anyway, the song is now performed in standard English, which makes it less folksy and charming but more lexically correct and thus more acceptable to our little OED (over educated darling).
School, but not his teacher, is also responsible for introducing the concept of Bad Words. He already knew them -- how could he not, growing up with the colourful language of the Old Country spoken fluently at home by both parents -- but he didn't know about them.
I found it enlightening to discover that there are, officially, three. "The F word, everybody knows that one, and the B word, I don't know what that is, and ... the S word, which is really bad. I'll tell you what it is if you like: [stage-whispered as if school principal is standing right behind him] Stupid!!" He reserves this high-voltage word for very very bad people indeed, like President Bush, the s----- president who started the s----- war.
As well as his patient and gifted teacher, there are a couple of other people who can take credit for Busyboy’s explosion into literacy. Like his parents, I guess, who have read him an estimated five thousand books over the last five and a half years -- and that’s just the bedtime ones. And we'll keep reading to him as long as he keeps up the fiction that he can’t read, and beyond.
But I must also thank the authors, without whom. Now, I always pictured the lad finally getting it with one of the books we’ve read to him several hundred times over the last few years. The Seuss masterpiece known since infancy as Bop Bop Bop (which is also a favourite of our s----- president, it transpires). Or maybe Little House on the Prairie, the name of whose dog "Jack" was the first word that leapt off the crowded page and straight into Busyboy’s delighted brain. Or one of the more recent favourites, like Rachel Hayward’s winning McGregor, the Fiendish Cat.
But nope, when push came to turn-the-page, it was all about comic books. I mean, graphic novels. No, actually, I mean comic books.
One night only a few months ago, checking to see that all was well upstairs, I heard a little voice chatting away from a darkened room. Peeking through the crack in the door I could see Busyboy hunched over a book, holding his dim night-light up to the page and tracing the words with all the focus of a man breaking the Enigma Code.
"Just... one... doggone... minute... Miss...” He ground to a halt. "Kissy? Hope? Hmmm, Kissy Hoper?" It was a pretty good guess for Cheeky Hobson, considering that on the page in question, Miss Hobson is aiming to plant a big smacker on a sheepish Wal, until The Dog intervenes by chewing through the rear carseat from the boot into which he has been banished.
The punchline for that one was evidently a bit hard to fathom, so Constant Reader flipped back to a well-loved, reliably hilarious full-page single-frame. "I don’t care... how... flamin'.... smart... the dog is, he’s not... flamin'... smart... en, eno, enough... to get to that... flamin'... car, car, carcass…. And the Dog says, He's flamin' right! Hahahahaha! That's excellent!"
So yes, thank you Murray Ball for services to literacy in the greater New England area! And thank you too to Diane diMassa, creator of Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, for your child-friendly collection of cartoons about your fearless Chicken the Cat, who runs a very close second to The Dog in my son’s affections.
Mindful that my new reader will sound out this post someday, let me say for the record how proud I am of him. It is an astonishing everyday miracle, accomplished without fanfare but with so much private satisfaction and excitement. Lots of private satisfaction in his case, since the lad managed to hide his new skill from us and his teacher for several months, in the first instance to make sure that we would keep reading to him, and in the latter so as not to embarrass the other members of his reading group at school, some of whom are still getting to grips with the alphabet.
I was quick to assure him that a) we won't stop reading to him, and b) his classmates will arrive at the same place sooner or later, so he doesn't need to hide his light under a bushel.
The transcendent moment of learning to read is, as Francis Spufford puts it in his sweet and erudite memoir of a bookish childhood (The Child that Books Built, 2002), the point when writing stops being "a thing – an object in the world," and becomes instead "a medium, a substance you look through."
Here is how Spufford describes his breakthrough, while he was off school for several weeks around his sixth birthday:
When I caught the mumps I couldn’t read; when I went back to school again, I could. The first page of The Hobbit was a thicket of symbols, to be decoded one at a time and joined hesitantly together. Primary schools in Britain now sometimes send home a photocopy of a page of Russian or Arabic to remind parents of that initial state when writing was a wall of spiky unknowns, an excluding briar hedge. By the time I reached The Hobbit’s last page, though, writing had softened, and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster, until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts.
I. N. In. A. In a. H, o, l, e. In a hole. I, n, t, h, e, g, r, o, u, n, d. In a hole in the ground. L-i-v-e-d-a-h-o-b-b-i-t. In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit... And then I never stopped again.
Isn't that beautiful, the way the prose itself re-enacts the experience it’s describing? An effect only heightened if you read the passage out loud.
Even as Busyboy moves on from Dr Seuss to Encyclopedia Brown (who, we decided the other night, would probably be called Google Brown these days), the last vestiges of preliterate approximations remain in his speech and some of his writing. While back in New Zealand in January, he remarked upon the masses of confetti along the motorway. I thought we must have been following a particularly enthusiastic bridal party, until it dawned on me that he meant graffiti.
Then there was some concern for a while that his favourite barber was in a war, until we established that "Iraqi" did sound a lot like "Rocky." (Other related questions linger, to be answered all in good time -- perhaps by the Iraqi kids we visited the other day who just arrived in town as refugees. Alas, their English isn't quite good enough yet to fully take in Busyboy's sincere apology for the behaviour of the s----- president).
On less controversial topics, he asked me the other day how to spell "un-the" -- you know, the opposite of "on-the," as in "the cat is un-the the table." And in his speech, people still love "us other" instead of each other. Plus, you know that machine in the shop, which they tally up your groceries on? It's a "cash reducer." (It really is!) And even though he knows too much sugar is bad for your teeth, his "taste bugs" really really like it.
Speaking of taste bugs, would you like some decaffeinated beer? That's what he plans to invent, when he’s a grown-up, to address the gross unfairness of children not being allowed to drink alcohol.
My mad scientist is also hard at work on blueprints for a scooter-stroller, to address the gross unfairness of mums not being able to keep up with their older child zooming into the distance on the newly acquired Razor, on account of having to push increasingly large toddler-guys in the stroller. It's just what it sounds like: a regular old stroller, but with a scooter attached to the back so you can coast along. Stand back, ladies - I'm first in line for the prototype!
The boy's new scooter is both a present for the first summer holiday/end of first year of school, and my trump card for tired big-boy legs in Reykjavik later this month. It's a nifty gadget, which folds down to fit in the suitcase or under the stroller, and can be whipped out and snapped together at a moment’s notice.
Scooter: $30. Helmet: $30. Watching the kiddo determinedly test-drive both around the shop last night like a crash test dummy only marginally more graceful: flippin' priceless.
Oh, and more on that increasingly large toddler-guy next time: he is now officially a walkie-talkie!