The first time Victoria goes into lockdown, our house is taken over by a person-like creature that is halfway hatched from what seems to be a chicken egg. It has a peach-and-cream skin tone and bright blue eyes. It yells things like ‘whey-hey-hey!’ and ‘niiiiiiiiiice work!’ over the pokies-esque sound of virtual coin-eggs accruing in a virtual money bag.
As part of learning from home, my six-year-old child, who is in Prep, has been given an account for the online literacy program ABC Reading Eggs. I’m reading the website homepage:
Learning to read can be easy and fun! … Children love the games, songs, golden eggs and other rewards which, along with feeling proud of their reading, really motivate children to keep exploring and learning.
In a blinking box on the right of the homepage, a testimonial:
We were delighted that our daughter learnt to read in less than six months and was way ahead of her peers in Kindergarten when assessed.—Angela, Parent.
And I mean, the program does work, if these kinds of measures of success are your only markers. But also, for a moment between Angela’s testimonial and the one from the next parent, an announcement appears: 9, 469, 390, 904 eggs banked
I’m on my phone and I’m reading What to Say When the Police Tell You to Stop Filming Them. I’m reading I Can’t Stop Looking at Bangs Transformations and Now I Want Bangs Too. I’m reading Sertraline: Side Effects, Usage, and Dosage. I’m reading other writers’ What I’m Readings so I can adjust my own tone accordingly. I’m reading Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Black Lives Matter Protests Referred to Our Count of 432 deaths. It’s Now 437 (8 June 2020). I’m reading the website of San Francisco-based hairstylist Jayne Matthews, so I can work out which styling razor she recommends for learning to cut a shag. I’m reading Coronavirus Updates Live. I’m reading Escitalopram: Side Effects, Usage, and Dosage. I’m reading Doomscrolling is Slowly Eroding Your Mental Health. I’m reading How to Make a Chicken Diaper? Please Post Your Thoughts.
I’m reading a webpage about local council regulations, over the shoulder of an elderly man who has asked me to. He has come into the library where I’m working, holding a scrap of paper with a handwritten URL on it. He has logged into a computer and typed the address into the URL bar, and he has read all the information he can see—now he wants to know why the paragraph gets cut off mid-sentence at the bottom of the screen. I teach him how to scroll.
When it came to choosing a primary school to send O to, I did not want to talk about it. I did not want to talk about it with my dad, who is the principal of a Catholic school in a town not too far from us and who is rightfully very proud of its literacy program, which is based on a lot of cutting-edge educational theories and is supported by impressive resources. I did not want to talk about it to other parents at childcare, who were comparing notes on the various options in town. I did not want to talk about it to friends and family members who have kids at the local Steiner school, whose philosophies I mostly like but whose fees I cannot afford. And I did not want to talk about it with Kylie at the gym, who asked where I was planning on sending my son and then spent twenty minutes telling me why I was making the wrong choice. I just wanted to send him to the closest public school to our house.
A video on Facebook: an acquaintance filming her six-year-old. ‘Ella, how do you think God made the world?’ There is something about this video that startles me. It shouldn’t, I guess—I grew up learning Bible stories too. (When I was six, I used to have nightmares about Judas hanging himself from a tree.) But this video, of another child my son’s age, suddenly reminds me how much choice we have, conscious or not, when it comes to the stories we use to introduce our kids to reading, and writing, and therefore the world.
There’s no God, for example, in any of my stories anymore.
At some point during the lead up to 2020 Prep enrolments being due, a family member said to me, ‘Having strong ethics is great and important, but at the end of the day you also need to be able to look after the interests of your own kid.’ The implication in this case being, I believe, that I should not sacrifice O’s best chance at excellence in literacy and numeracy for my pro-public school principles, or for my (long list of) ethics-based reservations when it comes to Catholic education.
I’ve thought about this conversation often since. On one hand this impulse, or this goal, to give our children the best we can manage, the best we can afford, makes total sense. This is love, but I think is also often bolstered by parental guilt about whatever our shortcomings are in the face of the ridiculous responsibility of raising another human being. It’s a panic, an overcompensation. We want to give them everything we can, because if we don’t, who else will? Isn’t this our job?
But what are the implications of thinking, of parenting, like this? When it comes to choosing a school, for example—to making decisions about education—is a high standard of literacy in your individual child the only, or even the ultimate, thing to strive for? Besides: literacy in what? Literate to whom? Literate why?
O’s primary school is excellent, and so is his teacher. However, I do not trust the half-hatched blue-eyed egg person, so I stay in earshot whenever O is using Reading Eggs. At one point, I listen in horror as two scarecrows start singing about how silly they look wearing each other’s clothes, because one of them is a boy and the other is a girl. I interrupt the video to say,
‘You know that’s wrong, right? People can wear whatever they like, no matter what gender they are.’
‘Yeah, Mum, I know. You’ve told me. It’s just for learning the letters.’
Another time, O is given a list of words to practise looking up in the Reading Eggs Dictionary. He clicks on ‘slave’. The use-it-in-a-sentence example, drawn from a book they’ve based the lesson on, is: ‘Your mother is not your slave.’ I start planning a mini lesson on the racist history of slavery and why ‘slave’ is not a term you should throw around like that, especially if you’re a white mother in a storybook who just thinks her son is getting a little too lazy. I decide it’s time to phase out Reading Eggs.
I start working at a new library branch. The manager, by way of induction, tells me she has a theory about libraries: they are like Jekyll and Hyde. They have two conflicting purposes, two conflicting personalities. They are a space for people who need help, or who need a safe space, because they are free spaces and open to all; and then on the other hand, she says, they attract upper middle class ‘culture bunnies’ who come for the ‘literature’. I tell her I like working in libraries because I’m interested in anti-capitalist spaces and activism as well as literature, and that I think they can work quite well together. She shakes her head, certain: No. They are in direct conflict.
Lockdown 2.0: my son’s teacher says his reading is now good enough for him to move onto Reading Eggspress. His avatar evolves from being a chicken to being a weirdly muscular human-like man-child, and he is given an apartment with a balcony view of a beautiful cityscape. He can cash in the eggs he earns from completing various activities to buy furniture, pets, and clothes.
I catch him clicking through the pages of the same (very easy) book over and over again, taking the test at the end several times so he can quickly earn enough eggs to fill his apartment with cats from the Reading Eggs Mall.
I take a shift filling in for a permanent staff member at another library branch. When I arrive, I am discreetly warned by the librarian I’m working with that the teenage boys sitting around the table near the computers should be in school, that they hang around in here all the time and are ‘disruptive’. My coworker says he’s surprised they don’t ban people here, like they do at the other library corporation he works for sometimes. I ask him how they enforce that rule, and he says with police.
Often, when I’m at work, I think of Vanessa Giron’s piece for TLB 42’s Public Libraries series, where she writes:
I take note of… the teenagers already there first thing when the library opens. They come with their own controllers and play PS4, sometimes with friends, sometimes with kids they’ve just met. I notice how one librarian will always sit across from the couches, watching from the desk… I feel shit when I see the kids enjoying themselves, not realising they’re being inspected slyly, and then feel shittier when they do realise. And I remember how helpless it is to have nowhere left to go, when you don’t have a PlayStation at home, or the books you need, and how they will potentially (definitely) remember this feeling every time they walk into the library, or any public space.
My coworker walks past the shelves I’m stacking and hisses, ‘They’re gonna break the keyboard. I’m not going over there’. I clench my teeth but wander a bit closer, and overhear part of the boys’ conversation:
‘Do you even have a dad?’
‘Nah, he’s dead.’
‘My sister’s dead.’
‘Yeah, I know. I was talking to your mum about that the other day, ae.’
When the librarian I’m covering for comes back at the end of my shift, she’s lugging stacks of YA books in from her car and she’s glowing, excited. ‘I was at the high school doing a little talk about the library for the teenagers!’ she says, dropping a pile of books onto the front desk and beaming at me. ‘It would be lovely to have some more young people in here.’
My friend C is, like me, a writer, a parent and a librarian. We’ve talked sometimes about not wanting to be pigeonholed as women who write about children—about struggling to balance the importance of parenting with wanting to be seen as more than, or at least other than, mothers.
When I tell her that I’m writing this piece, she says, ‘Well, what have you been reading?’ and I say, ‘Children’s books, mostly.’ Schools are shut because of the lockdown, and I’ve been teaching O to read. Plus my anxiety meds are giving me fatigue, and I don’t have any energy left over for my own reading. ‘That’s a shame,’ C says. ‘You’ll miss your chance to show off some literary cred.’
She’s at least half-joking, but I still spend too long afterwards worrying that she’s right.
I’m re-reading Khalid Warsame’s piece for this column, published in June 2019. It’s one I return to often. He writes about curating the books ‘strewn about [his] dining table and couch’ in preparation for a friend’s visit:
We all want to be known in very specific ways, and this instinctive urge to attach specific meaning to books as objects is one that is difficult to shake. The very real problem of literature is that it becomes grotesque when the act of reading becomes indistinguishable from a version of living that is mediated through the act of consumption.
Literate why? Literacy is undeniably linked to power, autonomy, class mobility. Freedom, even. Books, as objects, can also be indexed to different kinds of capital, including cultural and social capital, and perhaps this is what my manager is talking about when she derides ‘culture bunnies’. Perhaps she’s tired of a certain kind of capitalist exchange getting in the way of how she’s trying to help people.
The theme of O’s homework this week is money. Make a shop, create an ad, count change. An idea: Play Monopoly with your family!
I’ve been teaching O how to ‘read’ ads since he first began to talk. We’d be waiting for a tram and I’d point at a poster on the side of the tram stop, sounding like a tinfoil-hat-wearing old man: Look. What are they trying to sell you?
I think being financially literate is important, I think that being able to understand how to count change and how capitalism works is important, but when I see that O is expected to set up a shop, my jaw aches. I’m tired, and soon the JobSeeker rate will be dropped again, and I want a world and an economy that values care work and that values art, that values my work, and the last time I tried to play Monopoly, which was only in January, it made me feel so hollowed out and depressed that I had to stop playing mid-game so I didn’t cry in front of my friends. I’d like to help O to learn about the world, just for a little while, without having to help him cut out paper bank notes.
While I cut out his paper bank notes, O sets up his shop. He clears the table and carefully sets out piles of books: picture books, some junior fiction, some encyclopedias, some of my books and some of my partner’s books.
‘It’s a bookshop. Would you like to be my customer?’
‘What kind of book would you like to buy?’
‘Um. Well, I have a six-year-old who likes to read. He likes funny books, but he also likes books that teach him facts. Do you have any that you would recommend?’
‘Oh, yes! I have so many that he’ll like. Let me start with these…’
He has a lot of favourite books, and he’s able to tell me why he loves each of them so much. My jaw starts to unclench. I buy twenty books for sixty cents, total, and he gives me the perfect change.
Caitlin McGregor is a writer, editor and critic based in Central Victoria, on the land of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. She is donating her payment for this piece to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and encourages you to donate too at https://www.indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au/