cafe mama

a domestic realist blog

fiction unhinged . why nonfiction is not enough . january 24 . 2012

everett and truman reading
Everett has been reading. I set him to read for an hour and he picks up a book and is lost to me, he will not look up from the page or move or say anything, even when I ask him a direct question.

Then he will shoot out into interaction. "Mom! Listen to this!" he will say, and read about a dodecahedron or a synonym bun or an alchemic hilarity. We have read The Phantom Tollbooth, we are reading The Alchemist, we have read almost all of The Hobbit, we are nearly 2/3 of the way through the Harry Potter oeuvre. (My boys have caught my many-books-on-the-bedside-table reading fever, we skip around, none of us ever afraid to open a new book and read a chapter when we should really be finishing the old one, the older one, the older one still.)

On "movie night," we watch Dr. Who and Merlin and anything Miyazaki has ever made, we watch The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I am homeschooling Everett, again, and it is a homeschooling utterly contrary to the beliefs that underscore the Common Core ideals. It is a homeschooling steeped in fiction.

He loves fiction, and I shove him off in a boat like The Alchemist with a reminder of the backdrop of post-World War II in the U.S. and London. The parents of the main character are screenwriters and I remind him about McCarthyism, explain blacklisting, describe communism and socialism and how frightening they were. In ten minutes we cover: history, government, social studies, psychology, and we bring it all back to TV, film. That sad filmmaker. That girl refusing to do the "duck and cover" drills. These are images that stick, that remain startling and fresh for decades.

On NPR I heard the woman who did the research into Mary Ingalls, blinded not by as Laura Ingalls Wilder's books said, scarlet fever, but most probably by a brain disease: viral meningoencephalitis. She said of her medical training that she came across scarlet fever in diagnostics. "It can cause blindness!" she said. "Nooo. . ." her supervising doctor responded. But she read about it as a little girl. It must be true! And she set off on a decade-long research study to answer that question.

The books we read as children sear us, they create worlds in which we do not just hear the facts but we live in the facts, the facts of history and culture and politics and even mathematics and wordplay. Ask any child who has read The Phantom Tollbooth what a dodecahedron is. Now ask any adult who has not.

At night when his brothers have fallen asleep sometimes I read ahead in our books to him, from Tolkien, and I stop in mid-paragraph or sometimes even mid-sentence to describe the techniques. I am in frank, thorough admiration of Tolkien and I show Everett, the intentional rhyme and the unintentional rhyme, and the mind-rhymes and the rhythms, the alliteration and the assortment of sentences. Short and long, repeating words that mean the same thing for their beauty and to evoke other words, as well. Sometimes I almost cry, wiping my eyes after showing him a sentence that knocks off my socks. "He has been so formative for me!" I'll say, sniffling.

Oh my lord, heaven and earth and educational philosophies, what I have learned from fiction. I went to school like a champ, loved it, took extra classes and learned things I can't possibly use (shorthand) and things I could have easily done without (drafting) and things that I thought I mastered my 10-year-old kid would one day understand, innately, better than me (physics). He learned them through Minecraft videos. and V-sauce. He learned them through riding his bike. He learned them literally by accident.

Public grade school has never quite worked for Everett. He's been in and back out and half the time I didn't know why I was fighting so hard for him to go to school and come home showing troubling physical manifestations of his anxiety. And he's learned despite having virtually no instruction, his counsellor marveled to me, "he continues to test on grade level even though. . ." even though he barely ever has been taught a single thing in school. I think she said, he has had little to no instruction.

And so, for him, it is fiction. Because in fiction you ride along, you're in for the duration, you're frightened of the bombs like the kid in Paris or you're marveling over birdsong and wordsong and alchemy like the kid in London. You've learned, now, about all the Greek gods and the basic beliefs of seven different religions and the peculiar sadness of the wartime amputees. You know what it's like to live under rationing and you understand the different environmental needs of wheat and melons and sugarcane.

Fiction makes you feel things, and not scared literally shitless of screwing up at school and losing your friends, but more like, what it is like to be someone entirely other. Fiction opens your ken and your horizon. Fiction expands your definition of "human" and unfolds layer after layer of new interests. Fiction rocks your world and then teaches you all about the different sorts of rock.

I see my kid bent over a book, and I see a kid who is living in so many worlds other than this one; who is experiencing so many more experiences than it is possible to experience through textbooks at school for the brief spaces between being punished for an outburst by not going to recess and being made to fill out a think sheet for having an outburst about the lack of recess and sitting in the office because he wrote on his think sheet, "meooww."

I see my kid bent over a book and, in the quiet left behind, I smile, I bend to my work, I write.

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read my previous post . A BOOK. lost and found at home: a parent's journey in emotional childhood