July 10, 2016

Reading is an Act of Love (Teachers World, Oct ’75)

It is fashionable nowadays to agree that a child’s most important period of learning is from 0 to five. I doubt whether some of the people who trot this out really believe it, or whether they have any actual idea of the colossal amount of learning that a baby experiences – eagerly voluntarily, tirelessly – in pre-school years; and all entirely self-imposed.

Every environment has unconscious educational equipment. Babies learn to walk by becoming aware of their feet and legs, feeling them in every way, exploring their possibilities, exercising them. Then they use the unconscious educational equipment around them; a low table, the bars of a cot or play-pen, the legs of the most important adults in their life.

In some homes, books are part of the unconscious educational equipment (and later become conscious). They are nibbled and chewed, stroked, licked, pulled out of shelves and fitted back, pulled along to accompany a practice-crawl, loaded into a truck, built with…Adult bodies are very important educational equipment; stomachs, laps, and arms accompany deliberate looking at books.

A couple of year ago a letter signed Lorna Peterson appeared in the magazine Books for Your Children:

I began Infants School Libraries in London – in a school set in the midst of a street market. Wonderful open fires in the classroom, central heating in the wide corridors and the halls.

One dark winter’s day I walked along the corridor, and seeing the library door ajar I peeped in. Two children were there, a boy and a girl, inseparable friends since the day they arrived at school at 5 years – they were now 7. They were sitting close to the fireguard; the fire was bright, there was a carpet on the floor, pretty Norwegian chairs and tables, flowers on the tables. The children’s chairs were touching; the boy held a book and was reading it to the girl, but she had her head on his shoulder and was following his reading. As I crept away, I was saying joyfully to myself that at least two of my children had already learned not only the joy of a book but the joy of sharing.

I have always remembered this letter because to me that is exactly what reading is about. And isn’t this how children from book-homes for whom books are always part of life, come to reading while they are still babies, long before they come to school – the warmth and protectiveness, the physical and sensuous relationship, the deep loving absorption, as much part of the reading as the book itself? Have we supplied much more with our modern sophistication and techniques? Have we supplied anything like as much?

In a book-home being talked to, sung to, chanted to, comes first; then being read to. Then comes the beginning of writing – scribbling pictures to be enclosed in other people’s letters, learning how to write a kiss, dictating a loving message, and finally writing a whole small letter oneself – all magical moves towards someone known and loved. Then comes reading. All of it – for these are all different parts of the same reaching out – is a relationship. A going and returning of a silent excited voice between two friends.

For a long time after the idea of written (and therefore read) conversation has formed and been practised, it has nothing at all to do with information, only with urgent affection and longing, and with an utter confidence of being known, accepted, wanted (how could it be otherwise?) For a child like this, books read (in intimacy, with the child’s personally important adults) are part of shared life, shared enjoyment; little family jokes have got woven through them; certain phrases or names or jingles have been taken back into family life.

Somehow, if school books are the first books some children handle, and if one wants books to become part of every child’s life, one has got to get into the books some sense of relation, of acceptedness, of sensuousness and physical closeness, of pleasure, of familiarity, shared experience, personal loved identity – all those things that children from book homes experience in the natural course of their lives, and that the boy and girl found together in the fire-flickering school library. Get it into books, I said, because I am a writer, and what happens in contemporary schools, what their architecture and programme and attitude is, although I might comment on it, isn’t my job to sort out.

This is why I worked out the Nippers series, before the Plowden Report, before any other publisher had done anything remotely resembling it. I was aiming at making it possible for every child in a state school to have at least one book that acknowledged, accepted, and welcomed him and his family, that received as powerful an important communication the language they had helped build up in him from infancy and with which he establishes his place in the world, at least one book tat is aware of him and that sharpens his awareness of himself and of other people and of what goes on between them, at least one book that communicates with him.

Somehow life and the book must be united, otherwise reading won’t take.

If the language, situation, characters, standpoint, are utterly alien, and the child who reads gets no reflection of himself – might indeed not exist in the mid of the author, let alone be known and loved by the author, or if looking at the book is a situation of tension or pressure or intellectual or technical achievement only, or if the book is un-chosen or the actual act of reading unsought or unwanted at that moment, or if there is not relationship formed, why should anyone on earth read, anyone at all?

How can schools make up, retrieve, the fact that this reading, this looking at books, is taking place in a compulsory situation – when reading is an act of love?

The school I went to as a small child, was a place of sliding wood partitions. Long stone stairways, and iron fire-escapes. And in one of my terrifying journeys with some message through these partitions, I suddenly came on – what? A whole class, fifty children, listening absorbed while a tiny crippled teacher read aloud Winnie the Pooh. I had stepped through the partition into another world. I was supposed to go quickly through this room seeking some room many partitions beyond, heaven knows where, but I could scarcely bear to leave it. I was like a hungry child, face pressed against a restaurant window.

It wasn’t only the story, which I had never heard before, that cast a spell over me; it was the peace. Every child there was her own child, and she – this little spinster teacher – their loving mother.

You see, what I had happened upon was the MD class. That’s what they were called: MD for mentally deficient. These children were never going to win any scholarships; they were a dead loss to any school. And the teacher was one who was reckoned to have no qualifications of any kind beyond her teaching certificate (and a kindness and a love of children probably greater than anyone else in that school, but that has never counted).

Looking back, it seems extraordinary! This was in the twenties. And this lovely limping lady, whom we called Miss Lucy, was reading Winnie the Pooh – Winnie the Pooh! To children whose parents couldn’t speak English, and who only came to school when it was their turn for the shoes. And in this school which was frequently bedlam, full of shouting and screaming and stampeding, and – for some, like me – a desperate striving to climb to safety, there was on the other side of one particular partition a pool of relaxed tranquility, where no one was trying.

It was a religious school, and I had a religious upbringing. Every night I prayed to God, “Dear God, please make me mentally deficient.”

©Leila Berg

Published in Teachers World, Oct ’75