Superman and MeSherman AlexieI learned to read with a Superman comic book. Simple enough, I suppose. Icannot recall which particular Superman comic book I read, nor can I remember whichvillain he fought in that issue. I cannot remember the plot, nor the means by which Iobtained the comic book. What I can remember is this: I was 3 years old, a SpokaneIndian boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in easternWashington state. We were poor by most standards, but one of my parents usuallymanaged to find some minimum-wage job or another, which made us middle-class byreservation standards. I had a brother and three sisters. We lived on a combination ofirregular 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 bythe pound at Dutch’s Pawn Shop, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Value Village. When hehad extra money, he bought new novels at supermarkets, convenience stores andhospital gift shops. Our house was filled with books. They were stacked in crazy piles inthe bathroom, bedrooms and living room. In a fit of unemployment-inspired creativeenergy, my father built a set of bookshelves and soon filled them with a randomassortment of books about the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Vietnam War andthe entire 23-book series of the Apache westerns. My father loved books, and since Iloved 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 wordsthemselves were mostly foreign, but I still remember the exact moment when I firstunderstood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn’t have thevocabulary to say “paragraph,” but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that heldwords. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They hadsome specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. Ibegan to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a smallparagraph within the United States. My family’s house was a paragraph, distinct from theother paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south and the TribalSchool to the west. Inside our house, each family member existed as a separateparagraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us. Now, using thislogic, 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 thatSuperman comic book. Each panel, complete with picture, dialogue and narrative was athree-dimensional paragraph. In one panel, Superman breaks through a door. His suit isred, blue and yellow. The brown door shatters into many pieces. I look at the narrativeabove the picture. I cannot read the words, but I assume it tells me that “Superman isbreaking down the door.” Aloud, I pretend to read the words and say, “Superman isbreaking down the door.” Words, dialogue, also float out of Superman’s mouth. Becausehe is breaking down the door, I assume he says, “I am breaking down the door.” Onceagain, I pretend to read the words and say aloud, “I am breaking down the door” In thisway, I learned to read.This might be an interesting story all by itself. A little Indian boy teaches himselfto read at an early age and advances quickly. He reads “Grapes of Wrath” inkindergarten when other children are struggling through “Dick and Jane.” If he’d beenanything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called aprodigy. But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity. Hegrows into a man who often speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it willsomehow 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 andnon-Indians alike. I fought with my classmates on a daily basis. They wanted me to stayquiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers, for volunteers, for help. We wereIndian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectationsinside the classroom but subverted them on the outside. They struggled with basicreading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs. Theywere monosyllabic in front of their non-Indian teachers but could tell complicated storiesand jokes at the dinner table. They submissively ducked their heads when confronted bya non-Indian adult but would slug it out with the Indian bully who was 10 years older. AsIndian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world. Those who failed wereceremonially 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 intothe night, until I could barely keep my eyes open. I read books at recess, then duringlunch, and in the few minutes left after I had finished my classroom assignments. I readbooks in the car when my family traveled to powwows or basketball games. In shoppingmalls, I ran to the bookstores and read bits and pieces of as many books as I could. Iread the books my father brought home from the pawnshops and secondhand. I read thebooks I borrowed from the library. I read the backs of cereal boxes. I read thenewspaper. I read the bulletins posted on the walls of the school, the clinic, the tribaloffices, the post office. I read junk mail. I read auto-repair manuals. I read magazines. Iread anything that had words and paragraphs. I read with equal parts joy anddesperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. I wastrying to save my life.Despite all the books I read, I am still surprised I became a writer. I was going tobe a pediatrician. These days, I write novels, short stories, and poems. I visit schoolsand teach creative writing to Indian kids. In all my years in the reservation schoolsystem, I was never taught how to write poetry, short stories or novels. I was certainlynever taught that Indians wrote poetry, short stories and novels. Writing was somethingbeyond 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 theyexist? 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 arrogantwonder. They are trying to save their lives. Then there are the sullen and alreadydefeated 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 stareout the window. They refuse and resist. “Books,” I say to them. “Books,” I say. I throwmy weight against their locked doors. The door holds. I am smart. I am arrogant. I amlucky. 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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