© 2001 by Lynda J. Williams
used by permission
In the end they decided to send me. I was glad. I slipped into Angela's mother, a benign co-occupant, barely disturbing her behavior. It was strange but not too great a shock. We chose humans for their parallels to us, and I'd been studying this family for some time now.
Angela and Tegan were having a bath in a small, rectangular room. The children had been playing pouring games that strayed from the allowed to the forbidden side of the flesh-colored tub, soaking the towels vainly laid down. It was steamy and behind me a built-in fan droned.
"Come here, child!" Angela spoke for the terry-towel frog puppet on her hand.
"Eep, eep." Tegan's pink elephant clad hand swam in bounds towards the frog.
I crouched down. It wasn't something that their mother had intended but she found it natural enough. I wanted to pick up a book lying on the soaked towels. I did not recognize it. It must have been discovered recently in the heaps and jumbles of books piled in shelves or stacked in boxes all over the children's cluttered house.
The book's cardboard pages were sealed in plastic. The cover recommended it for singing in the shower. Inside, lyrics were listed under titles like "Singing in the Rain." The book itself was red and white. Littered with merry notes.
Was this significant? Was it Angela's?
Angela ignored me and called the elephant once more.
"Mommy, Mommy," Tegan demanded, "Look." She repeated the waving movements with the elephant puppet, pausing to pull it back onto her delicate hand as it floated off. Angela's little sister was elegant to the extent that that was within the repertoire of a lively five year old. I smiled with fond tolerance, letting their mother respond.
Angela was who I was here for.
She was chunkier than her sister without being fat. Short hair, streaked with shades of light brown and dark blond framed an attractive round face possessed by large brown eyes whose doe softness belied the hardy little soul looking out. Angela was small for seven. She could not throw balls and she went a little pigeon-toed when she ran. But she was the impartial judge we sought.
Angela came to our attention when she started school. Her response to her first day of Kindergarten was: "The teacher has an attitude problem. She keeps telling me to shut up."
Angela's teachers never, in fact, said quite that. They sent home notes praising her ability to concentrate on what she liked to do and urging her to "use her words" to resolve disputes. Angela preferred to crack offending peers over the head with a book. This was not acceptable behavior. But she knew who she was and would punch anything that interfered with that. Most interesting of all to us, while she reveled in art and enjoyed doing "golden bead" math, Angela at seven could not read those very same books. And this despite a reading-rich environment.
Was that wisdom?
She was struggling to read, after all, in a world that really made it optional -- at least for a seven year old -- in a household with audio and video broadcast reception and interactive multimedia. Angela could, for example, play games on her older sister Jennifer's computer. She didn't need to read much to do that. She could operate the television and the telephone. Her parents were both computing enthusiasts. Her culture was on the brink of a networked existence. People told her reading was good. But Angela had a mind of her own.
I felt excited and just a bit intimidated watching her ignore me as she yanked the plot line of the frog-and-elephant game away from her sister, in the bath. Tegan figured this out and began to pout.
"Whose is this?" I asked, holding the plastic song book up.
Tegan took it from me, opened it up and ran her finger along a line of black type as she mouthed a random stream of syllables. She closed it with finality. "You do it like that."
I looked to Angela. She ignored her younger sister's remark, saying with a touch of scorn, "Tegan can't really read that."
"This is how you read," said Tegan, assertive and oblivious. "Yah, yah, dee, do..." she babbled as she slid her finger along.
"I do reading for journal, at school," Angela lectured without being prompted at all.
"That's writing," I said, puzzled.
She did nothing to deny or acknowledge that.
I entreated her to tell me about ‘journal'. I was here to learn, not question what she taught.
"Well-l-," she drawled, when she was sure I'd learned my lesson, "for five minutes you had to write down any word that popped out of your head. That went out of your head onto the paper."
I was stunned by the physicality of that.
I asked, "Is that -- hard?"
She thought. "I like to draw letters. I am making Tegan learn how to draw them too. I help her by doing these dot to dot things. But she doesn't like doing it by herself. All she does is go over the dots and say 'here you are I'm finished'. She doesn't do it by herself."
I did not understand this. It was frustrating enough to make their mother help me out. She said, "You mean Tegan doesn't write on the line below, that's blank. After the line of dot to dots."
Angela did not respond. The children were playing pouring games once more. The mother shook her head, wondering why she had taken such an interest in a comment that was trivial to her.
I left them splashing and protesting over getting out.
I needed time to ponder my approach. Angela had been chosen by our pro and con camps. That itself was a miracle. That they could agree on that. At any moment, while I visited, the motive or technique might tumble out that answered the question I had come to put to this sage innocent, undefiled by our endless, complex arguments. Should reading stay or go as we evolved?
Our first exchange, over the dot to dots and the book of shower songs was racked up as a victory by the cons. Reading was drawing letter to Angela. She liked to draw. She also liked to set tasks for her little sister. That was all it was. In and of itself, as she so nimbly grasped, reading was just a fraud. Obsolete. A doomed art. Debate was drawing to a close, the pros dispirited, but they rallied to insist I be sent back.
This time would be the last.
When I arrived, Angela was sitting on the couch in the living room with a soft-covered comic novel open in her lap. A couple of pages were loose. "When," she asked, "is Jenny coming back?"
Prompted by her mother's knowledge, I said, "Just a few more sleeps now." The mother took away the book and tidied the loose pages up.
Angela said, "I'm bored."
It was close to bedtime. Angela was wearing a loose, adult garment called a T-shirt as pajamas. It was speckled gray with French words on the front. Tegan wore a white one with a big print of a tiger running across her middle and half way around her back, she was so small.
An orange cat lay on the clean but stained carpet, chin down, its eyes slowly opening and shutting again as Tegan rubbed its tummy. When it started to get up, Tegan dropped on a shoulder beside it and snagged it in a mighty hug.
I could bear subtlety no more.
"Angela," I said, "imagine -- let's say in the future, or somewhere else. Another country perhaps. Do you know what a country is?
She looked at me as if I was saying nothing of important but she had hopes I would shortly figure this out.
"What if people couldn't read," I asked. "How would you feel about that?"
This made more sense apparently. She answered promptly, "Bad."
I had not expected anything so blatant. "Bad? Why bad?"
"Because people need to know how to read. When they are children they learn how to read so they can read books and stuff when they're bored." She paused to grab a second cat, repeating for my benefit, "So they don't get bored."
"But -- you can't read. Can you?" This was a key point with the cons.
She gave a little shrug. "Sort of a little bit. I can read ‘is'. And ‘and'. I learned those first. They're easiest."
"Learning to read is unnatural," I sympathized. "It's been surpassed."
"Well," Angela pondered that. "I don't like the e's at the end of words that change the sound. It mixes me up. Get rid of it!" She tossed a hand, nearly losing the cat, and made a snatch for it that caused the animal to hunker down, eyes closed and ears flat.
"All language does have odd, historical holdovers -- " I began.
"‘I' gets mixed with ‘e' because they both say ‘eh'," Angela steam-rolled over my pointless abstractions once more. "So they're both the same letter, only different."
"That seems needlessly complex?" I suggested.
She had moved on. "This is how you spell ‘Dizzy Dizzy board game.'"
I had no idea what that was.
"D-i-z-z-y dash space d-i-z-z-y-b-a-r-d -- that's board," said Angela. "And then, uh, space, g-a-m-e. You have to sound out the letters, like dah ah dah. Dad."
She demonstrated the game, of her invention, known as ‘Dizzy Dizzy Bard Game' by spinning around and around until she fell down. The rules proved awfully complicated. Every question I asked elicited new variations on how it was scored. I despaired of understanding and asked about reading once more, hoping she would show me how to connect the two.
"The hard thing about learning to read," said Angela, "is you can't always figure out words. Some words are really long. So you can't really sound them out. If words were shorter it would help."
She was also adverse to certain consonant sounds.
"K says kuh. C says kuh," she paused. "Actually, chuck c. Because I don't like it. C and s get confused too. Then there's some silent letters. I don't like them. Make all the sounds sound like what they are. There's no silent letters or anything."
"Mommy," said Tegan, "do we have any cheezies?
"Lydia has a whole bag of them," said Angela. "You fill up these containers and then we eat them all and you have to get more in the container and we ate them all ..."
I was too excited by her brilliant revision of English spelling to follow the lesson of the containers. No one, pro or con, could refute any judgment she made now. Angela's language was particularly burdened with historical idiocyncracies and she had seen that, instinctively, at once. Without formal training in linguistics, etymology or grammar. I had to know more.
"How would you spell cheezies in your system?" I blurted out.
"Chee," she said, and paused. "There's no such letter."
Breathless, I urged her, "But if there was?"
"Chee Zee. No, there's an ‘ess' on the end. Chee Zee Zzz. Three letters." She let the plump corners of her mischievous mouth turn down. "I don't like s on the end. The s means many of them. Like mouse." She muttered over the anomalous word, ‘mice', puzzled, then dropped it. "Or cattle? No. Like cats. Cat cat cat that's how many cat."
English was not, of course, my first language. And not an easy study. I was taxing the limits of my comprehension now. But the children's mother readily understood. I let her answer Angela.
"So you would say, ‘We have two cat?'"
"There is two cat," Angela essayed a variation, dispensing in a second coupe with verb and noun agreement.
Her mother was thinking about getting the children to bed, wondering why she prolonged what seemed to her a silly conversation. My excitement couldn't perturb the ordinary rhythm of packing her young children off. I feared my time might be short.
"Do you want to learn to read Angela?" I put the question just like that..
"Why? When it is so hard? When the rules are so unreasonable?"
"Because," she reclaimed the worn comic novel her mother had put aside on a table beside the couch, "I would get to read Elf Quest to myself whenever I wanted to. A thousand pages every day!"
"That would be better than watching television?"
"Mmmmm. Yep!" She enthused. "In the old fashion days there used to be little story books and you flipped really fast and that was just like watching a movie."
I was proud that I understood that. "You think a movie is just another sort of book?"
"What if you had a book with no words to read in it. What do you think of that?"
"It would be a picture book. Then you make up the words."
"How would you know what words to use?"
"Because of the pictures! You look at them and say, mmm, what does this picture look like and you tell a story."
"Or you could say them in your head but you could say them out loud. It would be better if you said the word and then you saw how it was spelled instead of reading the word that was there."
"So you could teach yourself to read." I was getting it, slowly, now. There were mechanical difficulties. Clean them up! Writing and reading were intertwined. Let them be so! But I still didn't grasp, couldn't myself be completely sure I was ‘pro', until I had one more thing sorted out.
I sat beside Angela on the couch, taking the worn book called Elf Quest, with reverence, from her hands. She was telling me how the story should be improved. The worst villain in it had to go. There was enough trouble without her, in Angela's studied opinion. Or, if she stayed, she should be cured of her demented ways once and for all.
The captured cat escaped Tegan. Knees catching in her tiger T-shirt, Tegan scrambled up on the couch and scaled its back, meowing like a cat herself now.
Angela was explaining why everyone should share her enthusiasm for becoming literate.
"Because they can read books, they could read on the computer, they could read almost anything they wanted. They could read a cat's fur!"
I maintain the last points out that a cat can be described and therefore read about. Other interpretations abound, but mine is simplest and we forget, all of us, that it was simplicity we turned to Angela for.
At the time the question of the cat's fur seemed too profound. I wanted to be very sure I understood something much, much more obvious.
"Angela." I took her hands. "If you had a tape of all of the words in the Elf Quest story, and could turn them on at any time and hear them spoken out loud, wouldn't that be as good as reading?"
She said, flatly, "No."
"Why not?" I implored. "Oh, why not Angela?"
She blinked at my vehemence. "I like Jenny reading it to me." She grinned, getting excited, and stood up on the couch as Tegan came crawling past. "She makes Petalwing sound so cute."
"What if it was a tape of Jennifer reading it?" Jennifer was the absent child. Twelve years old. "One you could make play on demand. In each voice. Would you still prefer to have your sister there?"
"Yes," said Angela, without a moment's hesitance.
"Why is that?"
"Because I like her." She expressed a twinge of sympathy for my thickness by now.
Tegan pounced. It took me so by surprised the children's mother regained full control. She said, "Ooff." And then, to Angela, "Did she hurt you?"
Sounding hurt, Angela muttered, "No. Not much."
"Tegan," he mother sighed, "why are you jumping on us and tormenting the poor cats?"
Tegan said in a small voice, "I don't know."
Her mother asked, "Are you bored?"
Tegan should learn to read, I thought. I had already gained that much wisdom.
As if she'd overheard me, though I'd lost the power to use her mother's mouth, Angela announced, "People should learn to read because then you can always read to yourself and you feel good because you can read and you don't need anyone else to help you."
She said all this bouncing up and down, up and down on the couch. Tegan jumped again into her mother's lap.
Their mother said, "Ow!" and reached for a book to calm them down but they couldn't agree on one.
I lost contact, for the last time, confident of where I stood. Thanks to the wisdom of Angela, who knew how to value something she herself could not yet do.
I can only hope she got her choice of book.