Why I Hated My Literacy Narrative

Re-blogging a couple posts that I wrote for a course blog last year.

I hated writing my literacy narrative. It was difficult for me on a personal level to look back on my history with reading and writing, and it made me extremely uncomfortable to share these things with our class. Several moments throughout our course readings and discussions have helped me to make sense of my resistance to writing a literacy narrative. Firstly, when we all shared in class about our process of writing these narratives, I was taken aback by how many people had interviewed their parents for the assignment. This thought had never even crossed my mind. Why not? It seemed a logical starting point to ask the people who had taught you to read and write how they had gone about it, and I was no different than others in the class; my parents had taught me to read and write. So, why did I not think to ask them about it? This question haunted me for a few weeks and colored my approach to the course readings (seriously, that’s not embellishment or hindsight. I was worried. What made me, my family, and our relationship to reading and writing different?)

Some personal and family history: I am a first generation college student, and although my parents both earned high school diplomas, they have spent their professional lives as a secretary and letter carrier while I have pursued graduate education in English at both the Master’s and Doctoral levels. I have acquired specialized forms of literacy that stand in stark contrast to my parents’ literacy experiences which have constantly frustrated and embarrassed them. I should say that my parents are both generally happy, fulfilled individuals, but that fulfillment does not come from their work or their experiences with literacy especially in institutionalized settings. For these reasons, I have been experiencing over the past decade of my life a Richard Rodriguez-esque surpassing of my parents’ educational and literacy experiences.

Up to this point, I have effectively ignored this uncomfortable family situation, but throughout this course on literacy I have found myself learning about and reflecting on my personal and family history much more than I had ever anticipated doing in an academic course. Particularly, I found in Randy Pinder’s dissertation chapter “Literacy Meta-Discourse” a piece of an insight into my unsettling experiences with writing a literacy narrative. In describing adult learners enrolled in literacy programs, Randy’s work started to blur the lines between literate and illiterate in ways that were meaningful to me: “Students know the stigma of not graduating high school, resist the judgment others have for them, and become frustrated when they are unable to persuade sponsors like college admissions and employers of their literacy. They are forced to feel impoverished, even when they feel that their literate abilities are valuable and should be accepted without traditional documentation […] regional learners can feel literate without a diploma, but they feel frustrated when sponsors do not recognize the value of what they do possess. County learners can feel illiterate with a diploma, seeing themselves as impoverished in literate resources and cultural capital.” These descriptions helped me to make sense of the divide between my experiences with reading and writing and my parents’.

These passages, and Randy’s chapter in general, have shown me what literacy experiences are like for my parents on a day to day basis. They read and write in a variety of contexts, and I believe that they find value in it; however, I do not think that others have always valued my parents’ literacy practices and I know that they have felt that devaluation. I have seen my parents reading and writing and enjoying it. I have also seen them struggling and frustrated by it. In rare cases, when things at work have really come to a head, I have heard them outwardly and directly express their bitterness and indignation at not being valued for their individual performance or achievement, and these rare cases of embarrassment have often been related to literacy. Before reading Randy’s chapter, I did not have the language to express this description of my parents’ literacy experiences, but I definitely knew them and felt them intuitively.

And so, I did not and still have not asked my parents to talk to me about teaching me to read and write. I think my interview with my mom about typewriters was a less threatening way in for me to talk about literacy with her because it did not include any focus on my experiences with literacy. This comparison and contrast between their experiences and mine is what scares me. I cannot go there. Instead, I have revised my literacy narrative to foreground the artifacts that have influenced my reading and writing experiences. In this way, I found writing my literacy narrative much more enjoyable and less threatening to my relationship with my parents to and my relationship with reading and writing. And believe me, my parents are still there in my literacy narrative. In most cases , they were the ones who passed on these pop-culture, literacy artifacts to me or they were the first people I reported back to about my experiences after having consumed these artifacts. That exchange of pieces of pop-culture continues to characterize my relationship to my parents and continues to structure those of our literacy practices that we can share.

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