Beaten into Literacy

Beaten Into Literacy

I was beaten into literacy by an angry Irish teacher at a school located outside of Dublin called Glengara Park. I was six and had managed very well in American kindergarten where we carried our chairs for credit. In fact, I had starred as Mother Nature in the Spring Play and had learned all my lines by heart because I could not read.
People were less ambitious in those days. You learned to read in first grade unless your parents wanted to bother teaching you earlier. Mine didn’t.  While they had both graduated from Harvard and attended Harvard graduate school, teaching kids to read was what school was for. Mind you, reading was all anyone did in my house. My father, an English professor and writer, did nothing but read and my mother, a practicing architect, had books piled next to her bed. My sisters read. What else could they do? We were not allowed to watch television except for two hours on Saturday night. I spent all my time outside running amuck. My nickname was “the wild child”; reading didn’t matter yet.
We went to live in Ireland in 1963 because my father received a sabbatical to write a novel. We rented a house in a town called Sandycove directly across from the sea and the tower where James Joyce wrote much of Ulysses. It was a magical place. Three little girls lived next door, about the same age as me and my sisters. The youngest and I adored each other immediately and my parents decided we should all attend the same Catholic primary school as the Stuart girls.
Mind you, we were little heathens. My parents had renounced the Catholic Church although they had baptized their three daughters. I think they were amused by the idea of sending their daughters to a school run by Irish nuns. In any case, off we went in our blue beanies, pleated skirts and blue blazers. I sat at my desk wondering what to do with the funny looking pot of blue ink, the lined paper and the italic pen. Then our teacher, a very elderly teacher named Miss Scott asked us each to read from the book that was inside our desk. Aloud. As the girls in front of me proceeded to fluently decipher the letters on the page, I waited my turn, eager to explain to Miss Scott that I had never been taught reading in my American kindergarten. But this was not how the conversation went.
Miss Scott stood next to my desk and said: “Little Girl, read the next paragraph.” I smiled and replied, “I can’t read.”
“Little girl,” she said, “hold out your hand.”
I held out my fat, friendly little paw and was whacked with a yardstick so hard I nearly fainted.
Years later I would read the scene from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
when young Stephen Dedalus offers his Christian Brothers instructor his hand and has it treated exactly like mine. I felt a kinship with James Joyce, a relationship that had started early playing outside the Martello tower with my friends.
I did not tell my parents about this beating. I was an oddly proud child and felt I could handle this teacher by charming her with my Yankee pluck. It was a bad decision. Miss Scott, close to retirement, was very unhappy to be confronted by an ignorant American girl who was clearly unaware of her own stupidity. Day after day she hit me until one afternoon when she lost it entirely and a beautiful girl from the Upper form swooped into the classroom and carried me away into a garden where she dried my tears and gave me a cookie.
That evening my eldest sister told my parents that my life had been saved by William Butler Yeats’ granddaughter. Apparently, she attended Glengara Park.
“Why,” my parents asked, “was I being murdered by my first grade teacher?”
“I can’t read,” I said. “If I don’t learn this weekend, she’ll kill me.”
We had dinner guests that evening, the parents of the three little girls from next door. They were artists and the father was the illegitimate grandson of Maude Gonne, the Irish revolutionary and Yeats’ girlfriend.
“I will teach the child to read,” handsome Ian Stuart announced. And so he did.

Having been introduced to reading this way, one would assume I would hate it. But I didn’t. I became voracious. I read everything: cereal boxes, encyclopedias, all of Dickens, Austen, E.Nesbit, all the fairy tales, sociological studies of the urban poor, contemporary fiction, every book on every booklist I was given. I read trashy magazines and Proust. I read graffiti and other people’s letters.
And then I became a teacher. My first assignment was at a very diverse, on-the-edge, Chicago Public School. The teacher of the English courses I was given was seriously ill with advanced MS; her classes had been neglected for six months. The students in these classes had been neglected their entire academic lives. They were called “retreads” the chronic failures who kept being left behind until they left altogether. They rarely crossed the stage to receive their diplomas. I was also made the advisor for the school newspaper.
I had three students named Jesus Garcia, one class with three Vanessas, one class with a Thamillah, a Jamillah and a Shamillah. “Don’t you know me?” they’d ask when I stumbled over their names. “Ms. Mo, don’t you know who I am?”
I know who you are. I know your stepfather was found dead in a dumpster last year. I know your mother abandoned you in a shelter. I know you are in one of the worst gangs in Uptown and that the tattoo on your shin means you killed someone. I know you have two children, you’re sixteen and your mother said you should “learn from your mistakes.” I know your father beats you for cutting class, I know your father is proud of you and when you stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, neither of you can stop grinning. I know your mother is beautiful like you, younger than I am and already has a fifteen year old son. I know you are going to do something amazing. I know someone shot your father on the street while you held his hand. I know you cried when we read THE PEARL and Coyotito got killed and when the class laughed at you, you stood up and walked out. “Nobody should hurt a little baby,” you told me later when you came back to apologize for leaving. I know you escaped from Tibet when the Chinese invaded. I know you swam across the Rio Grande, paddled a boat from Viet Nam. I know you walked into a social services office and asked to become an emancipated minor. I know there is no one to put you to bed, to wake you up, to give you a good breakfast or remember your lunch money. I know you sleep in my class. I know you watch me and wait for me to give up. I’m not going to give up. On the last day of school you came back to my classroom. “Why did it take you so long to find us?” you asked. “Why did we have to wait?”

Everyone has certain opportunities in life. Becoming a teacher has given me the opportunity to watch students become readers, become literate, to become so skilled with words they are able to make a room full of people laugh or cry or get scared or angry. In a weird kind of way I am grateful for my first grade teacher’s cruelty. Maybe I would have learned how to read in a happier environment with singing puppets and lavish praise. But survival is a lesson we all need. I survived Glengara Park and my students survived their difficult lives. When June came those “retreads” crossed the stage to the whoops of their families and the tears of their teacher who had never imagined anything quite so perfect.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi Molly,
    Completely agree with everything that Vandra has said.

  3. Hi Molly, I was in Glengara in the 60s and remember Miss Scott well (she had taught my father when he was in kindergarten in the late 1920s) but I started in upper trans so wasn't taught by her. Can agree with the other two comments - very Church of Ireland and I can remember a Catholic girl from America joining the school - Patricia???? Heather

  4. Angela Lipsett [nee Hyde]March 6, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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