“Writing this was a formative experience. I believe that everyone, regardless of age or occupation, should write something to reflect on their journey. Without further delay, here is my story of self discovery and expression, my Literacy Narrative.” — Darren
I barely have any memories of my reading and writing experiences. In fact, I hated writing until the fall of last year, because before then, I didn’t know how to write whatever the hell I want. Let’s rewind a few years back before my grand epiphany of knowing that I have a right to share my thoughts on paper.
I learned to read and write like most Bahamian children. I sang along with my kindergarten teacher as she led the alphabet song; I spent nights at the dinner table doing phonics homework with my mother as she impatiently pestered me to finish. I read stacks of “Ladybird Read It Yourself” books, which I indeed had to read myself because my parents were never interested in reading to children. I wish that I could reflect on these experiences with some amount of tenderness or nostalgia, but in reality, I cannot. These experiences made a significant impact on my literary experience by appearing insignificant. There was always something or someone giving me exact directions, so there was no need for me to put any feeling into what I read or wrote. Reading and writing seemed was nothing but a set of rules, like follow the instructions and receive an award. This became my gospel.
As the youngest of four children, I tried to be the ideal child, which I implicitly learned was the child you don’t realize is there. I didn’t interrupt when adults were speaking. I didn’t make noise indoors. I didn’t ask for candy at the store. I didn’t complain about waiting an hour in the car. I was the ideal child at home and school. At school, I could never understand what thoughts were so important that my classmates had to utter it as soon as it came to their 10-year-old minds. Thus, like Sherman Alexie, as he commented in “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me”, I too was at odds with my classmates, but for a different reason. While Alexie’s classmates wanted him to “stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers,” I wanted my classmates to stay quiet so I could avoid getting beat with the teacher’s cane for the day, or as we so fondly called the process, “cut-skin”.
You may still be wondering, “What does this have to do with writing whatever the hell I want and literacy?” Well, as my examples suggest, my life revolved around being totally withdrawn, unobtrusive, and quiet, so writing whatever the hell I want, expressing myself and my thoughts, was absolutely alien to me. In the traditional sense, I was completely literate. My grammar was great, my spelling — impeccable and every assignment was an A grade (in primary school at least). As for reading, I devoured dozens of books: Nancy Drew (which was way better than the Hardy Boys), Geronimo Stilton, Goosebumps, James Patterson’s children’s books, and countless novels by countless authors. At the time, I followed the characters as a mere observer without comment or discussion and I enjoyed the journey. I received books for my birthday, read in the car, and was deemed a book addict by my classmates for the time I “smuggled” a book into an outdoor activity. By the Bahamas Ministry of Education’s standard, I was traditionally literate, a star student, but I was desperately illiterate in a crucial area, expressing myself.
My illiteracy in expressing myself resulted in me falling out of love with reading. In seventh grade, reading and writing had taken a new form as English Language and English Literature, new environments both confusing and frustrating. I wrote feverishly and thought for hours about essays, but my English teacher refused to let me through the gate to an ‘A’ for a long time, and for me, there was nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth. Eventually, I was convinced that I just wasn’t good at English. Nonetheless, part of me still wanted to write an essay worthy of existing in the realm of an “A”. I still asked myself, “What does she want?”
English continued to be a burden on my soul until my teacher assigned a descriptive essay on a traditional Bahamian festival called “Junkanoo”. During Junkanoo, which occurred annually on the night of Christmas and New Years Eve, the Bahamian people, charged with holiday spirit and patriotism, would “rush” downtown on Bay Street in their community groups, rhythmically pounding drums, shaking cowbells, blowing up a storm with whistles and brass instruments, and, of course, dancing — all in the effort of being deemed the best Junkanoo Group. Basically, it was a grand, Bahamian parade. As a Bahamian, I was expected to be an expert on Bahamian culture. However, as part of a family where “Jesus is our culture,” as my father would say, and also being an “indoors kid,” at the time, I knew a rough estimate of diddly-squat about Junkanoo, and the essay was due at the end of the period.
At that moment, I yielded. I was upset and ready to go to lunch. Suddenly, the question I had always asked myself when writing essays before changed from, “What does she want?” to, “What do I feel like writing that can get this over with?” Afterward, I continued to write about the night of Junkanoo when Bay Street mirrored the starry night sky as costumes and floats sparkled under the bright street lights and dancers moved as if the fiery spirit of the crowd had lit scorching flames under their feet.
I submitted the essay — no proofreading, no second thought. I was weary of fighting for an “A”, which I thought I would never receive.
Later that week, my teacher returned the essay. My mind froze as it stared back at me — a large red “90%”. After that moment, I started to focus more on what it was I wanted to write, and reading and writing, which I thought was a noose around my neck, slowly became a necklace on which hung a locket of my opinions, strengths, and flaws. I eventually began to wear it so well that my Literature teacher in twelfth grade called my writing style poetic.
Reflecting on my literary journey and comparing where I started from to where I am now, I would call where I am now: Heaven. In Heaven, we don’t feel the hurt caused by the criticisms and biases of others. We live in our most basic, true form, surrounded only by feelings of content and comfort. In that case, maybe this essay should be titled, “Writing Whatever the Most Glorious, Abundant Heaven I Want,” because what I want to write most of all is beauty. I want people to feel feathery softness as my words envelop their entire being. I want to share that sense of Heaven.
I have two nephews back home in the Bahamas, five and four-years-old. The five-year-old is utterly rambunctious but incredibly social. When my friends visited one day, almost immediately, as if he was the movie we had assembled to watch, he appeared yelling, “Y’all watch this!” On the other hand, the four-year-old is quite reserved but sparkles with inquisitive intelligence. He’s a boundless sea of questions, asking about everything, day or night. If there’s anyone I want to share my Heaven with, it’s them. For the five-year-old, as he interacts with the multitude of people that he will playfully pester, I want him to be encouraged to make them feel better than they did before they met him. For the four-year-old, I want him to be brave enough to speak up against injustice to himself and others. To me, self-expression is not only a gift but a right that children should have. I only wish I had it from an earlier age.
It still took until twelfth grade for me to fully understand what changed my perception of reading and writing, but I slowly understood that the power of my writing comes from my ideas and my unique perception of the world. I understood that I have the right to write whatever the hell I want. From primary to early junior high school, I did not put an ounce of myself into what I wrote or read. Then, I spent senior high learning the value of my ideas and how to express them. Now, I have arrived at the present where I am still discovering myself and new ideas to express. Regardless, I know that I can write incredibly, poetically, and unapologetically: whatever the hell I want.
Originally published at darrendbutler.wordpress.com on September 16, 2018.