How a Math Teacher Raises a Writer: Reflections for Father's Day
While working on my masters in Composition and Rhetoric, I spent a semester writing about my experiences with literacy - the stories, people, and moments that shaped my view of reading and writing. The following are experts from that larger work; each story centers on the role my father had in the formation of my literacy practices.
Happy Father's Day, Dad.
Thank you for letting me tag along.
The weekly walks to and from the public library with mom were full of laughter, skipping, and splashing in puddles. In my memory, Concord’s weather was always post-storm, blue-sky sunny with a few lingering puddles for the children’s sake. I have no memories of the library itself, only the route there and back. Our limit of books was determined by what we could carry. Perhaps backpacks and totes were used on the other side of town; rough brown cardboard boxes from the grocery store were our containers of choice. Once home, a small room off the living room served as our own library. My older brother, Ed, and I would carefully place the books on the long built-in bookshelf under the two large wood windows. For hours while Ed was off at kindergarten, I would sit alone on the hardwood floor reading. Oddly, I do not remember if I could actually read.
I was four years old. It was 1970. My father, along with a handful of other white men, had accepted one- and two-year teaching appointments at Barber-Scotia – a historically black college in North Carolina – to pull up freshman writing and math scores. It was a formative time for everyone. Nationally, our country was still boiling with racial issues. Within the Concord community, whites ostracized the new professors, wreaking havoc in my parent’s lives, silently preventing us from securing housing. We lived in a tent in the state park for months before settling into a rental home on the black side of town. In this volatile climate, within walking distance of the library, books, reading, and writing were a medium that transmitted parental love.
After the year in North Carolina, another in Utah, and two summers at grandparents' homes in Ohio, we moved to a private boarding school outside Sedona, Arizona. I was six and enrolled in public school. Daily I got off the bus and headed straight to my Dad’s math classroom – a white stucco structure with a thick wooden door. I would have entered without knocking. Crayons and a thick, hardback, blank book sat on the corner of my father’s desk. Mine for the taking. Sprawled on the floor, I would create while listening to him teach. There was never a right or wrong to my scribbles and attempts at writing – they were probably never even evaluated by an adult. My parents’ had a sporadic and unpredictable parenting style, which allowed me to seek literacy opportunities of my own liking. Dad used reading in real life. His unique job environment, interests, and his willingness to let me accompany him allowed for my easy exploration into the practical purposes of reading. I was pulled into a variety of escapees regardless of my personal skill. Literacy meant running around the boarding school campus looking for snakes that matched the rattlers in the science department's field guides. It meant writing notes to other faculty children on classroom chalkboards. it meant doodling on the students' homework after a communal meal in the cafeteria. Literacy meant participating as a child extra in the high school plays. It meant being loud in the school library , and being ignorant that most other children in my first grad classroom did not experience reading and writing after school the way I did. I was immersed in an academic community of high school students, staff, faculty, headmaster and families pursuing knowledge. There appeared no line of separation between my abilities and what we experienced collectively.
Some days, instead of riding the bus back to campus, my father picked me up from elementary school. We would spend hours flying about the Arizona mesas in a red and white rented Cessna 150. As co-pilot, my job was to read the laborious pre-flight checklist from his silver clipboard.
“Remove control lock,” I’d announced out the first maneuver importantly.
“Check,” he’d respond.
Ignition off, check. Master on, check. Lower flaps, check. Fuel gauges, check. And on we’d work through the list. My actual reading ability didn’t matter. Dad knew the list by memory and would supply words I couldn’t sound out. Very quickly, I too had the list memorized.
Spread out on the large wall-to-wall bed at the rear of a Winnebago, Grandma was writing a book. She cut and pasted real text and paper bound together with loose-leaf book rings as my grandfather drove her, my brother, and I to Colorado for the summer. The objective of the three months: meet my father in the mountains, survey the forty acres owned by his new employer, and meet with local contractors to develop plans for transforming a partially completed structure into an outdoor classroom.
Once we arrived, I was positioned at the survey pole end of the chain; my father worked the tripod and transit at the other. He recorded numbers and words in thick, black, hardbound books - books similar to the ones I had used for coloring years before. He wrote our last name with a thick Sharpie on page edges opposite the spine. He smiled at me after he wrote it. “That’s us,” he said, “Couldn’t write this without you at the other of the chain.” We were collaborating authors.
We would break from our survey work for lunch, then meet again during the daily rain shower at a makeshift table in the cabin. Together we transferred measurements, drew trees, and sketched land grade onto a map, triangulating the location of each addition. Unlike school, failure was something just between Dad and I. Errors in our measurement required us to re-measure areas we desperately wanted to mark as completed. Once again, Dad brought me into his literacy world.
Late summer afternoons in the mountains found Dad in meetings with contractors or working on plans and bids. Grandpa slept. Grandma worked on her book. What lacked in basic necessities like running water and electricity was made up for in book, paper, writing tools, and liberation. I kept a journal. Entries ranged from recording the silly mundane of daily life to drawing flowers, rocks, animals and copying their scientific information from field guides. I would record measurements of where I had located each specimen. Dad observed my experimentation at imitating his practices, but didn't intervene or direct. Our relationship, centered on reading and writing, was reminiscent of our flying in Arizona. I relished the time with him.