I don’t remember learning to read, but I do remember helping my brothers learn to read, which I suppose was good practice at that age. We started with small and simple books, the ones that have more pictures than words, but the novelty of that soon wore off; reading another story was less interesting than making up our own stories in the back yard. Reading was always a part of our lives growing up, but more important was a sense of understanding: of ourselves, of each other, and of the world around us. We were raised to be very observant, and when I think of the word “literacy” this sense of awareness and understanding comes to mind.
I never made that connection while growing up. In school I learned that literacy was the ability to read and write; I learned about spelling and handwriting and how important it is to be able to read and write well. All of that is important, and I took to it all quite well in my youth, but such tasks never engaged me as much as my extracurricular experiences with reading. An avid comic book reader from a young age, my mind was engaged both by the fantastic stories and by the colorful artwork on every pulpy page. I was enamored with the whole industry, dreaming of becoming a comic book artist and putting the pictures in my head on paper. I didn’t wait for acceptance in that profession to write and illustrate my own stories, stapling together my own little books and placing them on the shelf with professional works. I always saw my words standing side by side with the publications of artists and storytellers I admired. I wanted to learn how to make my works as good as theirs, so when I saw books about drawing I would read them, and I looked at stories written by others to see if I could make my stories just as fun and interesting.
Meanwhile, teachers introduced me to “literature,” stories that are recognized by many as noteworthy and representative of the breadth of human experience. I didn’t see any value in reading these works, of course, maintaining that nonfiction was never as interesting as the fantastic worlds of speculation. Things that actually had happened somewhere in space and time never seemed as potent to me as things that could have happened, or that may yet do so; many teachers were frustrated by the lack of interest I expressed in what they offered, especially when I would avidly read the works of Asimov, Card, and many others, and when I would write my own stories rather than complete essays or writing for their classes. It wasn’t until one teacher, Mrs. Riggs, presented a different face of literature that I had my first breakthrough.
My interest had turned to role playing games by that point, both for the sense of camaraderie developed among participants and for the shared storytelling that had thrilled me since I played in the backyard in my youth. I was constantly on the lookout for story ideas that I could appropriate into enjoyable tabletop adventures, and, as I entered Mrs. Rigg’s classroom, I was looking outside of my comfort zone for ideas and understanding.
Mrs. Riggs provided the other end of the bridge I traveled into more traditional areas of literature, most notably by reading one of the earliest works of science fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We studied the novel just as we would any other, and it was the first time I had seen anyone apply that much scrutiny and analysis to science fiction, pulling from it the same quality of insight and values that I saw done with the “canon.” It was the first time that I could consciously take hold of the tools I had been given in school and use them to unwrap something I loved and show it to others in the world, and in ways that could be understood by others.
It’s that sense of awakening I want to bring as a teacher. I know not everyone has the love I have for speculative fiction, but everyone has a love for something that I believe literature can unlock. For those who wish their voices to be heard, I want to show how others have stood out and loaned their voices to the world. For those who want to learn more about themselves, I want to help them see their reflections in the faces of characters. For those who claim that literacy plays a small role in their lives, I want to help them see that learning, and growing, and understanding anything around us is literacy, and they can use that desire to know to do great things.