Where did my literacy come from?

By Vita Forest


I come from a family of readers.  My mother was a midwife and my father was a cabinet-maker.  Neither of them went to university.  Nevertheless, our home life was one in which books and reading were important.

My sisters and I grew up in a house full of reading materials – novels, children’s books, encyclopaedias, newspapers and letters.  When we were young, we were read picture books everyday.  My parents still have some of those treasured books – Madeline, The Big Orange Splot and Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present.  As we grew older, we read chapter books to ourselves.  My father built bookshelves in our bedrooms to house our personal libraries and we were provided with our own bedside lamps.  In this way, books formed part of our private havens.  My late night habit of “just one more chapter and then I’ll turn off the light” began here.

In our family, reading was for pleasure.  My father often read literary fiction and favoured Australian writers such as Peter Carey and David Malouf.  My mother enjoyed humorous poetry and taught us many poems and rhymes.  There was a particular poem called The Friendly Cow, which we would all say in unison every time we passed a dairy farm.  Sharing stories and poems aloud and often knowing them by heart, was part of the discourse of our family.  Books also provided storylines and ideas for games.  We played at finding a “Secret Garden” and took turns being Mistress Mary, Martha and “the robin”.  This was especially effective in my grandmother’s long shady garden.

My mother also suggested novels to us that she had enjoyed as a child.  Accordingly, I read the Billabong series, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables.  These last two series, which focused on young girls who harboured ambitions of teaching and writing, perhaps affected me more than I realised at the time.  I also read the Swallows and Amazon series about the adventures of a group of children sailing boats in the Lakes District in England.  One day, as I borrowed one of these from the library, I was startled by a comment made by a classmate.  He did not believe I really read such “thick books.”  I had never been intimidated by the length of a book and was surprised to consider that others might be.  To me, reading was not just something you did at school and was definitely not done only because you had to.  It was the key into other worlds, other people’s heads and experiences I had never come across in my own life.

I attended the local catholic primary school which I do not remember with a lot of kindness.  Although I did well, school seemed tedious.  Moreover, I don’t remember learning to read or any story books I read while at school.  I do recall writing drills; copying the same letter endlessly on specially ruled paper.  We were also drilled on our spelling using a program called “Morphographic spelling.” This was full of long convoluted words which I never reused and whose meaning we didn’t learn.  The memory trick of remembering the order of the letters was more important than tying it to our own experience.  School was not like books, there was no magic.

The library was a central institution in my life.  From a young age, we attended Storytime and borrowed books.  My sisters and I keenly and successfully participated in Book week competitions at the library and at school.  Inspired by C.S. Lewis, I was “The Witch” (in white with a silver crown), my friend Katherine was “The Wardrobe” (inside a large cardboard box with handles) and her soft toy rode on top as “The Lion.”

After careful coaching from my mother, I was accepted into a selective public high school.  I was the only one from my primary school who took up a place there, which was very daunting initially.  I have a number of distinct memories from this period.  One of these is of a Year 8 English assignment, where we had to write our own poem inspired by Ted Hughes’ Wind.  We became very enthusiastic about the task and invested much thought and time into our efforts.  This is my first memory of really having the motivation and interest to revise and fine-tune a piece of writing.  Moreover, the results were spectacular!

I also remember having a terrific English teacher in Year 11 called Mr B.  Looking back, I realise we became so engaged because he got us thinking deeply by asking questions that took us beyond the texts themselves.  English was not where I gained a lasting knowledge of Grammar however; instead it came from studying other languages.  As a consequence of learning French, I was suddenly able to recognise the different parts of the English language.  I had a great French teacher called Mrs P.  She really taught me that language is about communication and making meaning.

After school, I completed a Bachelor of Arts at university.  This included two Creative writing courses where I tried my hand at poetry, playwriting and fiction.  Writing workshops were highly anticipated and exciting, often inspiring awe at classmates’ efforts.  These courses also cemented the idea of writing as a serious profession which we could all consider.

After completing my degree, I drifted into a career in I.T. as so many people did during the Dot com boom.  Work in this area was readily available and offered many travel opportunities.  This was attractive after struggling to find work during the recession of the 1990s.  I still wrote every day, however now the texts were informational – user guides, test cases, test plans.  The aim was to be very clear, accurate and concise.  I had to write to a deadline and for particular audiences.  Looking back, it was a good discipline to write within such constraints.

I am now the mother of two avid readers.  Some of the traditions from my own childhood continue in theirs – frequent trips to the library, bedtime stories and discussions about events and characters from favourite books.  One of the highlights of recent years was discovering Harry Potter alongside my children – all as first-time visitors to the world of Hogwarts.  We read the first three books aloud together, my children sitting wide-eyed beside me.  (I continued the journey into the later, darker books alone.)  My fascination with the way my son learnt to read at school was one reason I decided to retrain as a primary teacher.

When my children were born, a large box arrived on the doorstep filled with books, kernels of foam clinging to their sides.  They were a present from my family’s American friend Mardi.  She had also sent books to my sisters and me when we were young.  Looking back, this tradition of books as presents was significant.  It gave us a sense that books were special, that stories were gifts and giving books was a way of showing someone that you cared about them.  Mardi had been a primary school teacher and had also set up a program to raise literacy levels in children, a passionate concern of hers.  Echoes of her aims and philosophies come to me when I read with my children and also in my studies in Education.  For instance, reading as a way for children to bond with important adults in their lives.  Mardi was someone I really admired, and I now see that she too, influenced me in my decision to become a teacher.

Looking over the history of my own literacy, I can now conclude that my family life had a greater influence over my literacy than that of my schooling.  I can see that I was fortunate in having parents that supported and encouraged the habits of reading for enjoyment.  This was particularly important as my early schooling was not very inspiring.  I was luckier at high school and university, but the urge to read and create stories can really be traced back to my early family life.  As a teacher I hope to instil a love of literature in my students – not only are reading and writing necessary skills for participation in general life, they can be the departure point into the rich world of the imagination.

*This is an edited piece written a few years ago as part of my Education studies at university.  You might be interested to know that Lucy, now aged ten, is currently devouring Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by herself.



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