My father taught me how to read English long before any schoolteacher could. While I was too young to remember the process and how it was that I came to read, my mother tells me that most days during my toddler years Dad would prop me up on his thigh, and with newspaper in hand, he’d point to the various newspaper headlines; slowly reading both letters and words aloud, before encouraging me to echo his voice and actions.
I can imagine my father’s Black hand and his utilitarian index finger pointing to the bold letters on the crisp and creamy newspaper sheets.
I imagine Dad’s voice, like a warm, resonant lullaby, reverberating from his chest through mine, giving each letter and word a purpose and meaning. His voice would stir me from sleep, whenever I’d nod off in his lap at one of the family card nights we attended when I was a toddler. I distinctly remember his voice, and being stirred by the motion of him throwing down a hand of cards and saying ‘I’m out!’ and the warm sense of family I’d feel; my sister and cousins strewn similarly across parents’ laps as the adults murmured to us all. Even though they were referring to the kings and queens in their hands of cards, the monarchy was a world unknown to me as I dreamt in the familial sanctuary of our Black gathering.
The meeting point of imagination and memory aside, I’m told that Dad would read the articles of the day to me, and I’d sit there soaking it all in. It was our daily routine; and soon enough I developed a decent grasp of the English alphabet, English words and their associated sounds and pronunciations.
I remember being bored senseless by the time I was in prep class as our teacher graced the length of the blackboard, pointing at the alphabet that spanned the top margin, announcing each letter in turn, and encouraging 20-plus five year olds to repeat, repeat, repeat… Bored senseless, mind wandering and distracted by the shelves of musical instruments: the triangles, the tambourines and castanets… My legs folded as I silently grumbled like the child I was, looking to play one of the instruments, hoping to find a surprise in its song, longing to hear and express something new.
I don’t remember what it was that I first read on my own, but all I know is that once I had the ability to read, I couldn’t stop. If something was able to be read—be it newspaper, road sign, subtitle, LP sleeve, TV guide, magazine or book—I could be found poring over it in a private, rapturous affair.
Soaking up whatever could be read on a cereal box became my preferred way to start the day. I’d lap up each side before upending the pack to see if the base had anything of interest that I could digest. Coco Pops packets left me curious about what ‘dextrose’ was, while Weet-Bix boxes made me wonder about the word ‘thiamin’, and how in turn I might pronounce it.
On car journeys I’d perk up because I was the self-appointed know-it-all responsible for reading the road signs and announcing the names of upcoming towns, before telling everyone in the car the number of klicks left ‘til we got to the next town. If Mum and Dad were blissfully oblivious to my backseat commentary, and if an Uncle or Aunty happened to be travelling with us, they could be relied upon to correct my pronunciation of a mispronounced town name—the curlier ones more often than not taken from the local Aboriginal language.
Benalla. Colbinabbin. Girgarre. Kialla. Kotupna. Kyabram. Ouyen. Tongala. Toollenn. Wangaratta. Wunghnu. Yarrawonga.
Words like Dandenong, Echuca, Narrandera, Moama, Wy Yung, and Cummeragunja would roll off my young tongue, correctly and with ease because they represented home and family; even if some of those words prove too hard to spell correctly from memory nowadays.
Reading became my superpower. It allowed me to see the world in multiple, multifaceted, laser-like, technicolour, neon and explosive dimensions.
Reading allowed me to step into the well-worn shoes of others, gaining perspectives that I’d never be able to comprehend or see otherwise. As a kid I loved reading, and as an adult I still do.
By the time I was ten, my family moved from Melbourne to Mum’s country on the Murray—Yorta Yorta country. My sister and I attended school at Echuca High School—a world away from the school yard I’d grown to love in the suburbs of Melbourne.
In Echuca, I found that I could no longer just blend in. I wasn’t just another skin shade in the sprawling urban milieu. I was now an Aboriginal boy looked at with a blend of curiosity, detachment and sometimes disdain.
Despite my strident views and enthusiasm, Echuca High was a place that upheld a certain conduct, a certain code that required me to be less so, less strident. So, in turn I began to act indolent, which wasn’t that hard an ask given my teenage angst was rife.
Remaining detached and harbouring my own disdain became part of a game that was only ever played at school or if a white person was present, or implicated—a response to how my Black skin could and did provoke all manner of treatment that at times was special, at other times abhorrent and crass. Fostered by teenage minds and learned teachers at school, stereotypes pocked my life as an Aboriginal boy bussed into Echuca from Cummeragunja—which aside from being the curliest town name ever, was a world unknown to the prim and white townsfolk and schoolkids of Echuca.
After one summer, my Black skin burning bright from long days spent swimming in our river Dhungala, I found myself in a starched uniform, with new stationery and no fellow Aboriginal students, in a classroom, seated in neat and tidy rows, bored senseless yet again.
My new English teacher—who Mum told me was actually old, having taught her when she was a teenager—walked the aisles of our classroom depositing a copy of the same book at each desk.
He then stood at the blackboard with his crisp white linen shirt and his pleated dark brown shorts before honing in on me alone in my new shade of Black skin. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, as I held my open hand to my chest, silently asking, ‘Who me?’ ‘Yes. You!’ he stabbed, before putting aside his care about who I was and wryly asking me to begin reading aloud from the book he’d handed out.
I stepped into my well-worn shoes, the ones I’d wear to town and assumed my indolent persona, furtively opening the book while discreetly amping up the battery of my secret weapon, my superpower.
‘Whenever you’re ready… We’re waiting’, the teacher snorted, and after politely coughing as though I needed to clear my throat, I let rip.
I read aloud with conviction and clarity, at a tempo that belied my bunged-on indolence. I felt my Black skin shimmer. After completing the second paragraph I looked up at my new English teacher and asked, ‘Do you want me to continue? Or should we let someone else try to read?’ He stared at me with perplexed curiosity before gasping, ‘You read… beautifully’, to which I replied, ‘I know.’
Bryan Andy is a Yorta Yorta man from Cummeragunja, NSW. He is a writer and broadcaster. He identifies as gay.