When she was a wee thing, my daughter loved stories. She had favourites and wanted to hear them over and over.
There would be phases; the same one from the night before and the night before, before eventually moving on to another. By the time she was about five, she could read, but wouldn’t—preferring to be read to. It could get tedious.
I wanted to find a way to encourage her to read for herself, and I came up with a sneaky plan. One night, I started off reading a story, and then I began to improvise, twisting the plot in a completely different direction. My sideways eye was stealthily on her, waiting for the reaction.
At first, her eyes widened, then her forehead creased. She listened for a bit, then extracted her thumb from her mouth, wiped it, and complained: “That’s not right. You’re saying the wrong thing.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
We were both aware that she knew the words verbatim, and she was indignant. I was changing up the plot, turning her familiar upside down. Why would I do that? I explained to her that this was what could happen if you couldn’t read for yourself. People could tell you anything, twist words, change the story, and if you didn’t know better, you would believe them. They could trick you.
As simply as I could, I was telling her that reading was a source of knowledge, and knowledge was empowering. She didn’t like the idea of being tricked and soon, she crossed her hurdle and became a plentiful reader like me. I can’t say for sure if this was the reason, but it has stuck in my memory as a marker of the transition.
After writing about Ishmael Samad’s library at Kernahan, I received a considerable number of emails expressing interest and support for his idea. (For those who want to follow through, he can be reached at 378-4609, or at email@example.com.)
Many described their relationship with books and reading, and how it had shaped their lives. In several households—like when I was growing up—books were seen as something you ‘pick up’ to do homework, and any excessive attention to them brought scoldings about neglecting chores because ‘your head always bury in a book’.
And yet, Trinidad was once a place where reading was embraced, not just for the dreadfully myopic goal of certification, but as a pathway to erudition. When you listen to the moronic and vapid drivel that passes for public discourse now, you would never believe the illustrious heritage we have had.
A conversation earlier this week with Professor Rhoda Reddock, one of the Caribbean’s eminent sociologists, meandered along and turned to the disappointing fare emanating from radio talk shows. Rhoda was telling me that because little or no Trinidad and Tobago history is taught in schools (some have even dropped history from their curriculum), she was hoping to work with the History Department at The UWI to produce interactive programmes on the subject for radio.
Naturally, I warmed to the idea. I have always believed (and Kitchener told me so!) that sometimes people don’t know what they are missing until they begin getting it.
If radio station owners keep feeding people nonsense, spewed by uninformed minds, they will accept it until they are introduced to something more edifying.
I am talking here about raising the bar, not to a pompous, hifalutin level, but to the point where we respect ourselves as people with the right to understand our past and to know who we are. Our stories are worth telling and certainly worth hearing.
Knowledge is far more valuable than bling, but we don’t know enough yet to grasp that. The system concentrates on silos, training for specialties so that you know only this, but not one whit about its connection to the world you inhabit. This business of learning wasn’t always so misguidedly linked to gaining certification—a path that has mangled the concept of education.
Once upon a time, just after World War I, a community of literary and debating clubs burgeoned in rural and urban areas, right here in Trinidad. These were organised by primary school head teachers, said Rhoda, as she pulled out sociologist, Carl Campbell’s research to check the figures. There were up to 60 such clubs, he’d noted, ‘the accumulated intellectual outcome of two or three generations of primary schools since emancipation’.
In 1923, the East Indian Literary League was formed, and it debated a wide range of subjects: should western practices be adopted; what should be the role of municipal government; issues that spoke to a concern for development.
Social media may be defined as platforms for debate, but much of what it emits is crude and uninformed and driven by pockets full of ire. This is not to knock the wondrous nature of technology, but to say that it deserves better than that.
Many young people have been conditioned to believe that reading is for nerds. The system has turned them away, but little steps can begin the voyage to recovery. The Bocas Lit Festival is a grand example.
Rhoda’s quest to share our history can go far in rebuilding our self-esteem. The roadside ditches on the journey to Ishmael Samad’s Sanctuary are filled with wild Lotus flowers, beautiful guides to a magical world of books. Out of a muddy pond, ten thousand flowers bloom.