My Early Life With The Printed News

This was an essay that I wrote for a class that I took this past spring at Sacramento City College. Now, I already have my BA, and I'm going to go through the Master's program in English again so I will be able to teaching reading and writing at the junior college level. It's great to be able to just sit in a class that I never had the chance to take before because I was so busy trying to complete the English program. I loved the easy exchange of ideas and laid back atmosphere of this particular journalism class, which was an overview of mass media. But most of all, I had the opportunity to reflect and write about something that I have taken for granted--the fact that I grew up in a very literate household. After working with students who struggle mightily with basic communication skills, namely reading and writing at the sixth grade level, I have found that I am enormously grateful to my parents for being my primary teachers. I learned to read before I ever set one foot in a classroom, and I was writing short stories in the first grade. Until I started working with young adults who are NATIVE speakers of English and discovered that their parents never read to them when they were children, nor were there reading material of any kind in their homes, I realized that my parents gave me a very precious gift. Never again will I take the gift of being and able to read and write for granted.

My parents didn't know this back in the 60s when they were raising me, my sister and brother, but they were abiding by a very important teaching of Baha'u'llah:

The Pen of Glory counselleth everyone regarding the instruction and education of children. Behold that which the Will of God hath revealed upon Our arrival in the Prison City and recorded in the Most Holy Book. Unto every father hath been enjoined the instruction of his son and daughter in the art of reading and writing and in all that hath been laid down in the Holy Tablet. He that putteth away that which is commanded unto him, the Trustees are then to take from him that which is required for their instruction, if he be wealthy, and if not the matter devolveth upon the House of Justice. Verily, have We made it a shelter for the poor and needy. He that bringeth up his son or the son of another, it is as though he hath brought up a son of Mine; upon him rest My Glory, My Loving-Kindness, My Mercy, that have compassed the world. (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 128)

I can't remember my exact age, but I do believe I was about three years old. It was early evening, the sun turned the sky a dusky rose color and the hedges lining our front yard cast long shadows in the waning light. There were wonderful smells coming from the kitchen--my mother was fixing dinner, pot roast, collard greens, and corn bread. My sister Tam and I were sitting in our chairs in the living room, watching something on television. I can't remember what it was; just that we had to watch T.V. before my father came home.

This was 1961, and life in our house changed as soon as Dad came home from work. He turned the channel as soon as he walked in, and no matter what, he wouldn't change it back. We tried protesting, pouting, and making a lot of noise. It never made any difference. He still changed the channel. "Shhh! The news is on," he would tell us. Of course. There was nothing more important than The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Nothing except the evening editions of The Sacramento Bee and The Sacramento Union newspapers. He took the Bee because it was "his newspaper" and the Union because he to "had to keep an eye on those Republicans." Tam and I never understood it. He would turn the channel, fix a Scotch on the rocks, light a cigarette , and sit down to read the newspaper—while the news was on. That part that never made sense to us. Why would he turn the channel, then read the newspaper? There couldn't be that much going on the world. Yet, we had to be quiet.

My opinion of the news was that it was something adults created to torture little kids.
But the agony didn't stop there. My father insisted on reading news items that caught his interest out loud at the dinner table. Mom wasn't very happy about that; she seemed to think that dinner time was "family time", when we should sit down, enjoy our meal and make pleasant conversation. It never happened. Mom called us to dinner, and sure enough, my father always brought the newspaper with him.

Mom, of course, told him to leave it on the coffee table, and as usual, he ignored her. That's the way things were done in the Shortt household. My mother gave the orders, but Dad was the only family member who could ignore them. At any rate, dinner was filled with the sounds of a good, hearty, home cooked meal being enjoyed and my father reading the editorial page out loud to his family. Not only that, Dad expected us to listen carefully to what he read because he asked us questions about the piece as soon as he was done.

"Angie, what do you think about that?" Dad would turn to another section, fold the paper then look at me. "The paper said Dr. King is a good man for our people. What do you think?"

At three years old, I didn't think much about anything except Mom's good cooking and cartoons.

"I don't know."

"What? You don't know? I just read the story to you; what do you mean, you don't know?"

That was the first and last time I ever made that mistake. From then on, I listened to every word my father read during dinner. I wasn't about to be caught looking stupid like that again. Thus began one of the great Shortt family traditions (besides the holidays): the dinner time current events debates. They didn't start out as debates at first. Dad read the newspaper out loud; we listened, and repeated whatever he said.

As we became older, he noticed that we were just parroting back whatever he was saying. That's when he started asking us to think about the news he read.

"Now Angie, why do you think Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald?" Like so many Americans, President Kennedy's assassination consumed our thoughts and conversations. But my father's question was a low curve ball that I didn't see coming.

"Um…because he didn't like him?"

"No. Think about it. Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and Jack Ruby shot Oswald. Why do you think that happened?"

I was completely stumped. I couldn't think of a single reason why anyone would shoot another person, especially since he would have to go to the electric chair. I heard about the chair from my friends on our block. They said the chair turned people crispy, like when you leave a piece of bread in the toaster too long. I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to end up looking like a piece of nasty, burned-up toast.

I didn't know it at the time, but my father was helping his offspring develop critical thinking skills. We weren't supposed to just passively read—we had to think, and consider what the writer intended people to believe. Then we had to decide for ourselves whether we agreed with the writer's perspective or not.

It shouldn't have been a shock to my father that we began to disagree with his views as we grew into our teens. Dad was, and still is, a relentless student of debates who showed no mercy if we offered any sign of faulty logic. But we had learned from one of the best. We not only read all the newspapers and magazines that were stacked neatly on the coffee table just to keep pace with him, but we had to be able to think fast on the draw. Dad could shoot a rhetorical bullet faster than we could blink, so we had to be ready with a formidable defense—the facts..

We came to dinner prepared, armed to the teeth with information gathered from the newspapers and other media: Time, Newsweek, Life, Ebony, Essence, Jet, Highlight for Kids, the Bible, or any of the countless books in our family library. I read all of it voraciously. Part of my motivation was that I sincerely adored reading and learning about the vast world around me. But as any teenager would, I also loved being able to nail Dad to the wall during those debates. It didn't happen often, but when it did, he would chuckle and shake his head.

"I guess I taught them too well," he said to Mom.

For me, those were some of the greatest moments of my childhood. And now, I automatically read everything critically, then formulate rebuttals (or sometimes, agreements) in my head as soon I'm done. I can't help it. My father raised his children to be logic-based, critical thinkers before he unleashed us into the world. The least I could do is remain true to that tradition.
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