Advanced Essay #2: Mailman


My goals for this paper were to investigate the differences between my experience with literacy and that of other kids, as well as experiences we read about in class, and how the school system puts certain kids at an advantage or disadvantage. I am proud that I was able to develop more profound ideas, but I wish I could have gotten to them in a more precise manner, as my essay is quite long.

Advanced Essay

In my last year of Pre-k, I entered a class called the Roadrunners. We would read, write, play, hike, camp, and still, nap. At naptime, letters from classmates were handed out by one student, who was given the esteemed title of “Mailman” for that hour. It was considered an honor, an honor held above even the student chosen to hand out animal crackers, as the mailman could be no average toddler in terms of their literacy. I remember one spring afternoon that I received this honor in great detail:

Laying on our sticky blue gym mats, none of us were the least bit tired. We were all excitedly awaiting the announcement of today’s mailman. Our teacher, Christel, opened her mouth and we all stayed still in concentration.

“Okay Roadrunners, this afternoon I am going to spell our mailman’s name out backwards. When you know it's you, come to me. Quietly, please!” Each of us began to rack our brains, trying desperately to reverse the sequence we had come to know so well.

“A”, Christel began. My heart jumped, but then sank knowing it could still be anyone.

“I”, She continued. Because my class was small, I had finally narrowed it down to myself, and Nina, one of my playmates. Clearly my reversing skills needed work as her name was already out of the running, but I still had a chance.

“F” I shot up from my mat, ecstatic. When the contents of that little blue mailbox were shaken out into my hands, I felt on top of the world. Sounding out the letters in the scrawled script of my fellow three and four year olds was no hassle for me, but a welcomed challenge.

This excitement for literacy drove me to be an avid reader and writer for years to come. Pre-k gave me a strong base in literacy on which I built my academic career. My parents, who were elementary school teachers, taught me at home and encouraged, as well as rewarded reading and writing. Literacy became my main source of pride and happiness before I was even 5 years old.

I am so fortunate to have this head start, and this began to become apparent in entering elementary school. I had a leg-up on every kid I knew coming into the school. They all seemed to struggle with concepts I had grasped and held onto for years. Through my readings and personal experiences, I have now concluded that the school system of today often does not give students an incentive to learn, giving those with an outside support system or basis in literacy an advantage.

Mike Rose’s story in I Just Wanna Be Average is a perfect example of a student without an advantage. As a child of immigrants in a poor neighborhood, the cultural capital was of “physical prowess,” and the expectations for him were to get by, with no real investment in his education. When he was wrongly placed into the vocational track, he lost all previous self motivated interest and had nobody advocating for his success. In describing the fate of students placed in the vocational track like he was, he wrote, “You are defined by your school as ‘slow’; you’re placed in a curriculum that isn't designed to liberate but to occupy you, if you’re lucky, train you, though the training is for work that the society does not esteem” (Rose, 3), showing that the school system fails kids who initially struggle and cannot get much outside help, and these implications have lifelong consequences. This system is a trap for kids like Mike with immigrant, working, or uninvolved parents. Yet, the school system still denies responsibility, blaming the poor parent for not helping the child more. Rose writes, in talking about the parent of the student whose failing scores were swapped with his own, “What sort of pressure could an exhausted waitress apply?” (Rose, 1). When the school system begins to fail these struggling students, they fall even more with minimal support to keep them motivated. Thankfully, support came to him late in his school experience, through a teacher that incentivised him to improve his skills in literacy.

Sherman Alexie’s essay, The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me, tells a story similar to my own experience with literacy and education. He started reading at an early age, due to parental influence and encouragement. He dedicated his early interested in reading to his respect for his father, writing, “My father loved books, and since I loved my father with an aching devotion, I decided to love books as well” (Alexie, 12). His father was educated and invested in literacy, giving Alexie the same expectations as a parent, as Alexie set those for himself out of respect for his father. However, living on the reservation, many Indian kids didn’t have the same experience with literacy within their homes. Sherman Alexie describes that his classmates had the exact opposite expectations, for themselves, from their parents, and from their educators/ white society, “They struggled with basic reading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs… Those who failed were ceremoniously accepted by other Indians and appropriately pities by non-Indians” (Alexie, 13). They rejected literacy and growth, and their learning environment gave them no incentive to change this; failed through school but still met the expectations of those surrounding them.

One conclusion that can be gathered from this is that proficiency in literacy is a socioeconomic class issue, and within that also a racial divide. As an upper middle class white kid in an elementary school classroom of black and immigrant kids from working class families, I came in with a support system, a base in literacy, and was able to maneuver and manipulate my education to be beneficial to my future. Most of my white peers came in with similar advantages due to their socioeconomic status, but many of my peers of color came into the school system at a disadvantage. Coming from low income families, they probably did not have the opportunity to go to an early education program. This also may mean that their parents were uninvolved in educating them at home, not by choice, but because they may have been forced to focus on providing for basic needs, like food and bills. And when these students find themselves struggling with concepts or even focus in school, not many options at home or in many schools are able to incentivise their learning.

Another related conclusion is the profound effect that the direct and indirect expectations for kids from parents and educators on a student’s drive to learn. Self expectations are typically based upon those given by people in power. This is exemplified in children like myself and Sherman Alexie, following our parents path to become educated and read, but also by Mike Rose and struggling Indian children in The Joy of Reading… who had no goals for themselves in school because that was not what was valued by those around them. By being placed in a school that didn’t encourage them, their self motivation to learn was crushed by the low expectations set for and taught to the students there.

These factors are, and have been, having negative effects on kids who are not set up to succeed in these systems. The fact that there are kids who are set up to succeed and kids who will often fail due to factors out of their control is a problem within itself. These major issues leave many kids without the literacy to navigate the world past their bad experience with the school system. Many fall into mindless labor not by choice, but because they could not succeed in school without the support many unfortunately do not have at school or at home.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me. Los Angeles Times, 1998.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the boundary: a moving account of the struggles and achievements of America’s educationally underprepared. Penguin Books, 2005.