The Kids Can’t Read, But They Can Read You

Jose VilsonEducation, Featured, Jose

When I was seven years old, a frio-frio man used to park his cart in front of our elementary school in the spring and sell his Italian ices for 50¢ for 2 scoops. Whenever my mom had enough change, she’d give me two quarters and I’d treat myself to the street delicacy. At the time, a counselor from our now-defunct after-school program picked me and my friends up from school. Even though I was from the hood, my mother rarely let me delve too deeply in the ways and means of the hood for fear that I’d get involved in hood life the way my cousins did. I was the smart one in the family, and those same cousins forced me out of the shady spots to keep my nose in the books.

One eventful day, the frio-frio man fielded 15 kids at once, all clamoring for their icey before the kids from the school across the street swooped in. In a hurry, I stretched my hand out with two quarters. The man took it and never gave me my order. I went directly to my counselor and told him what happened. He then proceeded to yell a few Spanish words for stealing my money and demand that I get my helado. I smiled for a few minutes, but before I could take my first taste, the counselor turned around to me and said, “How can you be so dumb and give him your money before getting your icey? Pay some damn attention and make sure you get yours!”

Lesson learned. Reading doesn’t just matter in the school, but outside as well.

That was one of the first moments I remember having to pick up street literacy, and how to tell whether deception was afoot. I learned how to wait a few seconds before reacting, how to cut my losses in untenable situations, how to read eyes before reading lips, and how to conceal my valuables. Eventually, I had enough hood in me to empathize with the hoodlums, gangstas, and thugs on the street, even though I knew I could never be 100% about that life. Empathy built allegiance. But, if I didn’t learn how to read people, I wouldn’t have lived long enough to display my academic skills.

To this day, I laugh when people say my kids can’t read, and judge that based on a test made by consultants who derive their methods from eugenicists and other folks who perpetuated my people’s institutional subjugation. If we take a deeper analysis of what they see when they go to school, it calls into question who the real gangsta is, right? Instead of running the block, they run the whole infrastructure. Instead of developing unwritten rules that everyone has to abide by, they put their rules in the laws of the land. Instead of street language, they wrote their codes in a way that had to be studied for almost a decade. If not, we had to have the financial backing to have access to others with the language. Our TVs rarely reflected positive versions of us, and, when they did, it was exceptional versions of us, followed by us creating havoc. Meanwhile, they go halfway around the world and kill by the thousands, heroes protecting us from us, we supposed.

Then, we’d go to our schools and have their stories be the keys to our promotion to some form of normalcy. Once normalized, we were prompted to leave and never regret it. The only way we knew if we had access to normalcy was through these standardized tests. Should we pass these tests, we qualified to try out for mainstream America. Intellectual hazing. That’s gangsta.

Secondly, most of my students are currently learning the same codes I did, if they haven’t already, making alliances that allow for their survival.

That’s what makes me curious about the idea of literacy. There’s so many different literacies that honing in on just one often leaves my English Language Learners disadvantaged. Their texts rarely reaffirm their humanities, their families left as an aside for extracurricular pondering. Their music is filler for their non-academic activities. Their futures are binary: college or the street, rarely nuanced. Yet, when you peruse their portfolios, you see essays, and not the five-paragraph kind either, that put reformers and pundits to shame.

In no way am I saying that my students shouldn’t get to read actual texts in school. It was only a century or so ago that my students (and I) weren’t allowed to read in this country, so I overstand. I also believe we need a comprehensive set of texts that directly address and challenge my students to think critically about the written words so they have access to the same set of knowledge that ostracizes them from institutional resources. In addition, I’d like to see a more fortified curricula for social studies, science, and math, along with more investment in the arts and gym. They should have a body of knowledge that allows them to walk into any room and converse with anyone regardless of their own experiences and upbringing. I need them to travel further than the dimensions allowed by NYC’s public transportation system and see others’ worlds, previewed perhaps by the works they saw in class.

We must also understand that the literacy that lets them get to school, on a public train, into my school, through the school day, and back home won’t be measured on an exam, but perhaps they can use that literacy to step into the mind of Baldwin, Twain, Garcia Marquez, Cisneros, or Morrison. But, if the only literacy that matters is the one the state determines through inconspicuous means, what does that say about the other literacies we leave out?

What’s more, my kids, ~95% of whom met the state’s criteria for promotion, could probably determine who served them their knowledge the best. I teach students math, and I approach teaching math with the same understandings I undertook. I ask students to think critically. I rarely give them the answers, but ask them to find it on their own. I want them to openly question whether I’m confusing them on purpose or not. I engage them in asking each other and helping each other. I rarely let them depend on me.

I also know, as others who don’t teach would do well to learn, that we can’t actually teach kids if we don’t like them as people. Unlike adults, kids have fewer filters for energies, and can easily detect when the adult in front of them wants them to learn or simply wants them to do as they’re told. The kids might not able to read, but they can read you.

Here’s your close read of the day. Please, take your time.

photo c/o