First Person: Why Victor Can't Read | Essay | Chicago Reader

First Person: Why Victor Can't Read 

Suburban and middle-class kids know what raccoons and freight and having one's own room are. To Victor they are as abstract as amaranth and happiness.

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Twice a week I sit in the back of a fifth-grade classroom and read with one child at a time until we finish a story, which seldom happens, or until the child is tired. Then I work with another.

All the children live in a big housing project. You get to the lake by going down a wide street lined with boarded-up buildings, currency exchanges, stores with handwritten "food and liquor" signs, bars, and groups of men hanging out on street corners, waiting for a bus, or for a connection, or just waiting. The six-lane expressway a little bit to the west effectively cuts the area off from the rest of the city in that direction. As far as you can see north and south from the school are huge buildings, rectangles set on end, each on its own square of cement, with cement sidewalks between them where the teachers are afraid to walk because of sporadic gunshots, and where the children walk to school and back home every day.

In this school, which has 800 students, a child can see a nurse only if he or she happens to need one on a Tuesday, the nurse's day. There is no teachers' lounge and not enough office help. Teachers take turns bringing soap for the faculty washroom, where a faucet has been leaking for seven months.

The reading material available to us is limited. There's a cute story about a cute raccoon who visits an exemplary, two-dimensional family with a father and mother and brother and sister who live in a house that has a separate bedroom for each child. There's also a story about a storm at sea. The first sentence of that story refers to a Coast Guard cutter, a distress flare, and a sinking freighter. The students do not know what the Coast Guard is, and I do not want to use the obvious comparison to the police, who do not serve and protect them but arrest their fathers and brothers. They do not know what the word "distress" means, although they experience it every day, and they do not know what a freighter is, or what freight is. I do not know what a cutter is, but "boat" will do. (I have never finished that story with anyone.)

Today I am reading with Victor. He is medium-size and physically unexceptional except that he holds his shoulders even more stiffly than most and smiles even more seldom.

We are working on a one-page story with exercises that I copied from a workbook I bought. (The children are more apt to finish these stories.) The workbook is boring, without charm, but it is almost easy enough, and I like the exercises. Since I am not good at inventing questions, it's better to use someone else's multiple choice.

The story Victor and I are reading is about a father and son who have come to Earth from another planet to go fishing. The father, Abba, has brought laser, sonar, and radar equipment to find the fish. (I do know enough not to attempt to define those words and settle for "equipment.") The son wants to fish with only poles and a bait box, as they used to do at home. Abba is not convinced, but sure enough, all the heavy machines make his side of the boat start to sink. (Victor does not ask why all the machines are on one side of the boat.) Abba agrees that it is best to leave them onshore and fish with poles. "You were right," he says to his son.

The story is followed with questions and four suggested answers to each. One asks us to choose the best title. The only possible answer is "Father's Heavy Equipment Rocks the Boat." The most impossible is "Father Knows Best," which is the title chosen by all three of the children with whom I have read this story. It is also the title Victor chooses.

We review the story sentence by sentence, word by word, almost letter by letter. What is the father's name? What is the son's name? Who wanted to bring the heavy equipment? Is he the father or the son? Who did not want to bring the heavy equipment? Is he the father or son? Was it a good idea to bring the heavy equipment?

We have now established the relevant facts. Then, like one about to place the 52nd card on the carefully built, very shaky tower, I ask, "In this case, did Father know best?" Victor nods. I see the frightened, guilty look of someone who has no alternative except to lie.

I read two of the incorrect answers again. Victor agrees that neither is a good title for this story. I ask again if "Father Knows Best" is the best title, or whether perhaps "Heavy Equipment Almost Sinks the Boat" would be better. He reluctantly agrees that "Father Knows Best" is not the best title for this story. We agree on the correct answer. A Pyrrhic victory. We are both exhausted.

I know Victor is not stupid, certainly not this stupid. His teacher explains, "He worships his father. He hardly ever gets to see him." (I know his father is in jail.) "It is a very big deal when his father pays attention to him."

My friend Dennis says: "Reading is a physical activity to these kids. They do not connect it with mental activity at all."

He is right. When they read aloud, they sound like the computerized voices you hear on the telephone when you call to get the time or weather. I think of blind Milton's daughters reading to him phonetically in Greek, which they did not understand at all.

My husband says: "He is giving you a safe answer. If he says "Father Knows Best,' nobody will hit him."

I think about the effects cultural differences are reported to have on intelligence tests. Suburban kids and middle-class kids know what raccoons and freight and having one's own room are. To Victor, they are as abstract as amethysts, amaranth, and happiness. I know that distress flares, Coast Guard cutters, and storms at sea are incomprehensible to Victor and to most of his classmates. They have never seen the lake, which is two miles away and light-years from the bastion they inhabit. When I tried to find something in that story to relate to Victor's experience, I felt like someone groping in a dark room for the light switch--which must have been there, but I could not find it.

Maybe Victor is not in the room with the light. Maybe he is in another room. Most of this fifth-grade class thought that when the waves were easing up, they were getting higher. I understood that; I thought I understood cultural differences. I did not know that those differences might affect one's ability to say safely that Father does not always know best.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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