by Marie Munkara
To learn to read must be one of the most exciting and useful things we can do in our lives and maybe for some the hardest as well. Although I had a basic idea of what reading was about before I went to school, I was taught the fundamentals of reading and writing at a Catholic Primary school in the mid nineteen sixties. And there was no shirking in Sister Damien’s class; we studied our nouns and verbs as rigorously as if we were studying Latin declensions at Oxford. If our brains struggled to retain her words and mad scribblings on the blackboard, then her wooden ruler that descended on any exposed part of our bodies with a speed and accuracy that defied belief, convinced us otherwise. If that didn’t work we would be made to stand in front of the class while she humiliated us with scathing abuse about our abilities before kneeling in the corner and praying to god for redemption. She was obsessed with the English language and anyone who didn’t share her fervour would be made to pay and pray for it.
I expect there would have been some kids whom she ruined for life but I count myself as one of the lucky ones in whose hearts she inspired and instilled a literary passion almost as great as hers. But I didn’t think that at the time and I recall asking her one day why it was so important to learn to read at all. “So you can read the Bible” she said without hesitation. “So you can read the teachings of God.” Oh dear, I squirmed guiltily as I thought of my well-thumbed Famous Fives and Secret Sevens. Luckily she was to never find out about my frivolous readings but it still amazes me now that her sole purpose to teach kids to read was for her religion. That the bruised knuckles, the shame as I stood in front of the whole class, the unanswered prayers to god to help me read better were all for religious zealotry. But despite her fundamentalist Catholicism there is no doubt in my mind that Sister Damien was a brilliant teacher. She taught me to not only read but to also understand the structure of the English language, which is equally important. In order to know the beast it helps to know the skeleton and the muscles and organs that make it function the way it does. So I owe Sister Damien a lot.
And then it was my turn to pass on this knowledge to my kids. I started the process of teaching my kids to read before they went to school with the belief that I was giving them a head start, so imagine my surprise when I learnt that things weren’t done the way they’d been done for me anymore. There was no repeating “i before e except after c” or “e comes before i after h’ until it was burned into malleable brains. There were no fifteen minute warm up spelling tests at the start of each day where kids were randomly picked to spell words like crucifixion or liturgy or conscience and if you couldn’t you picked up rubbish at lunch time. Oh no, it was all “modern” now and kids were taught to spell words phonetically and then the teachers worried about the proper spelling later on. “But isn’t that making bad spelling habits that will be hard to break” I would protest as the teacher would usher me out of the classroom before slamming the door in my face. Homework was a nightmare. You don’t spell “trouble” like that I would say in horror as my child would write “chrubble” in her neatest script and then glare at me when instructed to write it properly. This lead to disagreements with my kids who complained bitterly that I was worse than their teachers and they really didn’t care about the Latin or Greek or Sanskrit roots of the word in question, or the rule that governed it. This in turn led to exchanges with teachers who told me in no uncertain terms to leave the teaching to them as my “alternate” methods were confusing my child. I’m the one who’s confused I’d say as I’d watch the classroom door close in my face again.
Becoming Chairperson of the School Council was my next move, but to no avail. Still the excuses flowed thick and fast, “its part of the school curricula and we can’t change anything”, “this system has been designed by experts”, “our teachers know what they’re doing.” Showing the School Council a homework sheet with the School name spelt wrong by my daughter’s teacher elicited no response. I knew then I was fighting a losing battle and I had to just focus on my own kids after that. If the teacher who “knew what she was doing” couldn’t spell, then how could she teach my child to spell?
My kids went through the education system in the Northern Territory, the last one finished her final year in 2014, and it was common for students to reach high school barely literate and then muddle their way through until Leaving. And even today thousands of dollars are spent on homework centres where untrained workers are helping students with homework that they can scarcely read or comprehend. I was constantly asking the question why aren’t kids kept back to repeat the year until they do meet the literary requirements of that grade but the reply was always the same, no kids get held back in the Northern Territory. It’s just not done. And where are the parents while their kids are performing so dismally, I wondered. Are they illiterate as well or do they just not care?
My children have children now and who do they send my grandchildren to when they are doing their English homework? Me. Obviously the fights with my kids over correct spelling, punctuation, pronunciation, etc., were all worth it. So I’d like to see reading and writing taught again the way I was taught. Not with the violence and humiliation of course but with a deep grounding in what constitutes the English language in its written form so our kids can go forth in the world better armed than many of them are now.