Monday, January 08, 2007

The thing itself

About twenty years ago I was walking down the street with Erin, my little girl, when she stopped abruptly, released my hand and squatted down in front of the grill of a parked car facing the nearby curb. She stared at the license plate and began to call out the letters and numbers...NLM9382, I was about to congratulate her when I realized she wasn't finished. With utter seriousness of purpose, she said, kuh, aw,! I only grasped the logic at work in her mind when I realized that on Sesame Street (and in certain books as well) she had gotten used to seeing the names of objects displayed in boxes just above or below the thing itself....what other purpose could there be for a license plate than to identify the object to which it was attached? What I found particularly endearing, as a father and an English teacher, was her intuition, however imperfectly informed, that the proper way to attack the "word" on the license plate was to sound it out phonetically. Erin, it should be noted, is now a fully grown and highly skilled reader.
As I was carrying Colm to the car this afternoon, he hollered at me to look at the word on our car. Fortunately, I had the werewithal to realize that he meant letter, not word and I saw a large uppercase A on a sticker on the back windshield. Is that your word? he asked me. No, that's not one of mine. Is that a E? No, not quite, it's an A. Do I have an A? he asked. Tess responded brusquely, No, you don't have an A. I have an E. You have the letter O in Colm, I said, casting an imploring look at Tess to cut the poor lad some slack.
Oh, he said.
I thought to myself, don't get discouraged, keep trying Colm. Every discovery Colm makes or tries to make seems to occur under the glare of Tess' penetrating eyes. Consequently, he doesn't get the opportunity to engage in the kind of freewheeling speculation that was Tess' perrogative when she was his age and which she now accepts as a kind of birthright.
Trying not to be the overanxious parent, I've noticed that Colm doesn't have his letters down the way Tess did at his age. Even making such an observation seems to implicate me in the overanxious category, I fear. But most of my thinking about this derives from the observation that Colm has really skipped the whole one-on-one alphabet learning stage that Tess had enjoyed with us but which in Colm's case, owing to birth order, been truncated and largely subordinated to Tess' ever pressing and prevailing agenda. Colm sits by her side and stares at the same pages as she does, but he splits his focus between the page and her. He is as much engaged in the art of reading his sister as he is in the act of reading books.

Letters and sounds have been the rage in our house for about a week now. A few days ago, I made some flashcards sets (one of vowels, the other of family names and friends' names) and we played some letter indentification games, mostly memory card games like concentration. This was triggered by a couple of things, a recent phone conversation with a friend about kindergarten and first grade expectations and then an even more recent family foray into the world of card playing.
The kids have latched onto playing Fish and War and Concentration. It is particularly amusing to hear Tess cry out, C'est la guerre! and then watch the suspense build as she and Colm lay down three cards before seeing who will then be able to say, Gagnez!
In the spirit of sportsmanship I've taught both of them to say, tres bien!, whenever the other plays a winning's a very cute custom that is more honored at the beginning of the game before the desire to possess more cards has really overtaken them...then you're more likely to hear one of them say in an ever so slightly whiny voice something like, I wanted that card or I need more cards...
And then tonight at the dinner table Tess began sounding out words and then spelling them. She began with fork, and then did cup, dog, cat. Beth and I could barely contain ourselves. Colm, not one to be left out of the fun and with the native genius that only a little brother could know how to use properly, proposed grasshopper.
Tess attempted it, made some good starts, but then foundered. She would close her eyes tight, as if she were entering her own private viewing space and then try to conjure the letters. Colm seemed satisfied with the stumped silence. I decided to help her by getting a card and writing down the letters. I wrote down the same words she had spelled minutes earlier, cup, fork, cat, dog, and asked her to read them. She took each word, letter by letter, sound by was a legitimate display of decoding. Then I wrote the word, pen, and laid my pen down next to the card and watched. She sounded out the sounds, p, e, n, then she said, pen. Good, we said to her. Then she stared for a moment and said, pen. She was looking at the pen almost as if she'd never seen one before. It struck me as a kind of Helen Keller moment in miniature. The letters, the sounds, the word, the utterance, the thing itself.

A bit later, I wrote, grasshopper. Together we sounded it out and then she looked at me and said, that's a long one.


Anonymous cjones said...

Wonderful story about Erin and the car.

Skiff of snow in the valley, nice snows continue in the mountains. I'll send a photo to beth@eoni

10:09 PM  
Anonymous erin said...

So that's where I get it- reading license plates, that is. As for the dynamics between Tess and Colm... well, speaking from experience- little brothers turn out okay. I like to say that Tim and Colm's tribulations at the hands of older sisters make them stronger. But maybe I'm biased. Haha.

7:27 PM  
Blogger kc said...

happy new year!

9:59 PM  

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