Culture //

Reading to learn

Anonymous on learning to read.

Dad read me paperbacks in his accent at night, and eventually I mouthed the words as he spoke them. I plucked his chest hair when he was reading sometimes and his pained yelps brought eternal giggles. Paying attention was never my strength. He was always a good sport.

I started reading before I was out of night-time nappies. I’m not sure if that’s prodigious or alarming. I had highly developed compulsive rituals by the time I was 5, and sometimes I’d force myself to read a sentence multiple times before turning the page. And then read it backwards. And cross my eyes. And uncross. Four times. Eight times. Sixteen times.

–You screwed up. Start again.


Because I said so.

But I can’t.

Yes you can. You have to. Don’t tell anyone about me because they won’t believe you. Only you can see me.–

From an outsider’s perspective, obsessive compulsions probably look like a really quirky kid. I sat alone at lunchtime.

The first book I read was pink. The Runaway Pig, a paperback about a pig who, unexpectedly, ran away. It was in the impulse buy section, next to the candy bars and lollipops. I discerned my vices at a young age.

I exchanged swear words with my friends who spoke Tagalog and Bengali. I’ll give you poo if you give me bum. Or fart. Together, we were invincible. A giddy gang of tiny miscreants, drunk on power and apple juice boxes. Almost all of the teachers were White.

–Now try translating. Switch between the two. No one will believe that you think in Spanish.

But I do.

Just do it.

Si, yes. Hola, hello. Tengo que ir al baño. I have to go to the bathroom. Tengo que hacer esta cosa… I have to do this thing. Where I.. Pero lo tengo que hacer. But I have to do it. It like someone’s forcing me to…

Stop that. What did I tell you?–

In 1998, my hand slipped and I pushed a pencil up my nose. The chunky kind they give to school kids whose fingers are too small to clasp a normal-sized HB. The teacher saw me and his accent was invented because only people on TV spoke like he did, so why was he pretending?

“Why did you do that? Did you slip?”

“Yeah. It hurts.”

“Be careful. You could really hurt yourself.”

Four hundred Boeing 747 engines at top speed could not have stopped me from doing what I did next.

–But he’s watching.

No he’s not.

But he will think I did it on purpose the first time.

Just do it. You have to.



Fake America Man was two students over, distracted. I picked up the pencil to make things even. I had to. I jabbed tip into my other nostril. Instant relief.

“HEY. I saw that. Why are you doing that?”

“I slipped.”

A cold stare. He knows.

Oh no, oh no, he knows.