Chelsea Perez
Dr. Susan Wolff-Murphy
English 5361.201
6 September 2011

Reading Response #1: Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundaries

I want to start this journal entry off rather informally. I need to get it out of my system that I have not been this excited about reading in a very long time (gasp! Coming from an English major!!). Don’t get me wrong -- I always find some way to connect with texts (and find some excitement in them) -- but wow. Rose has me around his finger. I connect to his story, his very life, in such a way that it’s nearly indescribable. It is this kind of excitement that made me choose, way back when, to be an English major. The human condition. It’s close to me, but so far. Something clicks inside.

I went to high school at Miller High School here in Corpus Christi. I do not mean to brag or sound arrogant, but there was a small group of us who outperformed the other students on all levels: math, science, art, language arts, and foreign language. We were a small minority, however. Because of this, I often had to mask my intelligence and creativity for some semblance of social acceptance. While I was still able to earn the grades I wanted, I severely shortchanged myself and didn’t learn nearly as much as I could/should have in high school. Rose is able to articulate this distance so well—it’s like he was swimming in my mind, immersed in thoughts I didn’t know I had, and was able to articulate something I didn’t know needed so badly to be said. Two quotes are particularly riveting and speak volumes about my high school experience:

  • Rose writes “During my time in Voc. Ed., I developed further into a mediocre student and a somnambulant problem solver, and that affected the subject I did have the wherewithal to handles… My attention flitted here and there. I fooled around in class and read my books indifferently—the intellectual equivalent of playing with you food. I did what I had to do to get by, and I did it with half a mind” (27).
  • What was expected and essentially the norm for my high school: “You’ll have to shut down, have to reject intellectual stimuli or diffuse them with sarcasm, have to cultivate stupidity, have to convert boredom from a malady into a way of confronting the world. Keep your vocabulary simple, act stoned when you’re not or act more stoned than you are, flaunt ignorance, materialize your dreams” (Rose 29). And there I am. There is my high school experience in a few paragraphs.

Moving on to the more formal aspect of this reading response. Rose gives some powerful examples of what “basic writers” are, and really complicates the definition of a basic writer. Basic writers are not people you can overgeneralize about, nor are they individuals that you can oversimplify. In his multigenre text, he writes about many people who were/are considered basic writers. Each has such individual contexts from which they come. In “Our Schools and Our Children”, Rose discusses students in a college-level remedial writing course that he is observing. He begins the book with Laura, one of his own students, who has dropped his course four times. The reader is introduced to her cultural background and the picture begins to emerge, but it doesn’t stop there. That’s not a typecast to be applied to all students. Rose progresses and recounts the discussion that took place in the class he observed. Wouldn’t you know it? They know a thing or two about Greek mythology. They know who Oedipus and Narcissus are. That would probably knock some people right off their feet.

Rose doesn’t just discuss basic writers in the context of college, however, which I feel is invaluable and absolutely necessary when discussing basic writing instruction… the stereotypes typically begin very early on and have a tendency to follow students into higher ed. He also gives a powerful rendition of students classified as basic writers (or illiterate at its worst) in primary school. In “Literate Stirrings”, Rose has just decided to drop out of his MA program and has joined the Teacher Corps. He works a lot with Mrs. Naumann, the school’s reading specialist, and he is eventually tasked with working with “some kids who could use the extra help” (Rose 93). Rose describes how some of his students were either tortured by writing or they were relatively okay with writing despite grammatical/mechanical issues. His description of the failures and successes of the assignments and the progress of the students is just mind-blowing and challenges the stereotypes surrounding the ones deemed illiterate. Even though some struggle more than others, all of his students could write and were even able to create a collection of all the writing they did by the end of their private, ungraded lessons. The students even wrote about and talked about racial acceptance and equality and how, despite their different skin colors, everyone needs to get along. That’s hardly illiterate. That’s more enlightened than some adults I know. (Side note: What he writes… that’s exactly why anyone who loves teaching gets into teaching. You fall in love with it, you struggle and fail, and then you fall in love with it all over again. Rose always gives political bureaucracy bullshit side note comments, but those are always very much welcome, especially because I agree with his observations. Down with the standardized testing! )