How is it the same or different from your own story of learning?

How is it the same or different from your own story of learning?

Superman and Me

Sherman Alexie

I learned to read with a Superman comic book. Simple enough, I suppose. I

cannot recall which particular Superman comic book I read, nor can I remember which

villain he fought in that issue. I cannot remember the plot, nor the means by which I

obtained the comic book. What I can remember is this: I was 3 years old, a Spokane

Indian boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern

Washington state. We were poor by most standards, but one of my parents usually

managed to find some minimum-wage job or another, which made us middle-class by

reservation standards. I had a brother and three sisters. We lived on a combination of

irregular paychecks, hope, fear and government surplus food.

My father, who is one of the few Indians who went to Catholic school on purpose,

was an avid reader of westerns, spy thrillers, murder mysteries, gangster epics,

basketball player biographies and anything else he could find. He bought his books by

the pound at Dutch’s Pawn Shop, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Value Village. When he

had extra money, he bought new novels at supermarkets, convenience stores and

hospital gift shops. Our house was filled with books. They were stacked in crazy piles in

the bathroom, bedrooms and living room. In a fit of unemployment-inspired creative

energy, my father built a set of bookshelves and soon filled them with a random

assortment of books about the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Vietnam War and

the entire 23-book series of the Apache westerns. My father loved books, and since I

loved my father with an aching devotion, I decided to love books as well.

I can remember picking up my father’s books before I could read. The words

themselves were mostly foreign, but I still remember the exact moment when I first

understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn’t have the

vocabulary to say “paragraph,” but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held

words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had

some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I

began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small

paragraph within the United States. My family’s house was a paragraph, distinct from the

other paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south and the Tribal

School to the west. Inside our house, each family member existed as a separate

paragraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us. Now, using this

logic, I can see my changed family as an essay of seven paragraphs: mother, father,

older brother, the deceased sister, my younger twin sisters and our adopted little brother.

At the same time I was seeing the world in paragraphs, I also picked up that

Superman comic book. Each panel, complete with picture, dialogue and narrative was a

three-dimensional paragraph. In one panel, Superman breaks through a door. His suit is

red, blue and yellow. The brown door shatters into many pieces. I look at the narrative

above the picture. I cannot read the words, but I assume it tells me that “Superman is

breaking down the door.” Aloud, I pretend to read the words and say, “Superman is

breaking down the door.” Words, dialogue, also float out of Superman’s mouth. Because

he is breaking down the door, I assume he says, “I am breaking down the door.” Once

again, I pretend to read the words and say aloud, “I am breaking down the door” In this

way, I learned to read.

This might be an interesting story all by itself. A little Indian boy teaches himself

to read at an early age and advances quickly. He reads “Grapes of Wrath” in

kindergarten when other children are struggling through “Dick and Jane.” If he’d been

anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a

prodigy. But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity. He

grows into a man who often speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it will

somehow dull the pain and make him sound more modest about his talents.

A smart Indian is a dangerous person, widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and

non-Indians alike. I fought with my classmates on a daily basis. They wanted me to stay

quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers, for volunteers, for help. We were

Indian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectations

inside the classroom but subverted them on the outside. They struggled with basic

reading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs. They

were monosyllabic in front of their non-Indian teachers but could tell complicated stories

and jokes at the dinner table. They submissively ducked their heads when confronted by

a non-Indian adult but would slug it out with the Indian bully who was 10 years older. As

Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world. Those who failed were

ceremonially accepted by other Indians and appropriately pitied by non-Indians.

I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky. I read books late into

the night, until I could barely keep my eyes open. I read books at recess, then during

lunch, and in the few minutes left after I had finished my classroom assignments. I read

books in the car when my family traveled to powwows or basketball games. In shopping

malls, I ran to the bookstores and read bits and pieces of as many books as I could. I

read the books my father brought home from the pawnshops and secondhand. I read the

books I borrowed from the library. I read the backs of cereal boxes. I read the

newspaper. I read the bulletins posted on the walls of the school, the clinic, the tribal

offices, the post office. I read junk mail. I read auto-repair manuals. I read magazines. I

read anything that had words and paragraphs. I read with equal parts joy and

desperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. I was

trying to save my life.

Despite all the books I read, I am still surprised I became a writer. I was going to

be a pediatrician. These days, I write novels, short stories, and poems. I visit schools

and teach creative writing to Indian kids. In all my years in the reservation school

system, I was never taught how to write poetry, short stories or novels. I was certainly

never taught that Indians wrote poetry, short stories and novels. Writing was something

beyond Indians. I cannot recall a single time that a guest teacher visited the reservation.

There must have been visiting teachers. Who were they? Where are they now? Do they

exist? I visit the schools as often as possible. The Indian kids crowd the classroom.

Many are writing their own poems, short stories and novels. They have read my books.

They have read many other books. They look at me with bright eyes and arrogant

wonder. They are trying to save their lives. Then there are the sullen and already

defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me with theatrical precision.

The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare

out the window. They refuse and resist. “Books,” I say to them. “Books,” I say. I throw

my weight against their locked doors. The door holds. I am smart. I am arrogant. I am

lucky. I am trying to save our lives.

Assignment discussion

Post one or two paragraphs describing your reaction to Alexie’s memoir about learning to read and how he expresses his commitment to social change in his community.

How is it the same or different from your own story of learning?

Post an additional paragraph about your views on how technology frames our perspective. Comment on what you found the most or least surprising in the TEDTalk video on this subject.


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How is it the same or different from your own story of learning


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