Remembering Back to School

The return to school in September is always an energetic time. At university, students are often overflowing with enthusiasm, which usually lasts until exams start in October. Then, things get hard.
I remember back to school for my kids. Through their elementary years, junior high, then finally high school, September was always about routine, about settling in, about finding a rhythm for a new year. And September was the New Year, not January.
While my fondest memories of back to school are those of my kids—the shopping for school supplies, the new clothes, the anticipation, the tears—my most poignant memory of back to school is my arrival on the UofA campus for the start of my undergrad degree in 1985.
As a blind student, I found the UofA campus an intimidating place. It was sprawling, confusing, and hard to navigate. I had some help from the people at Disabled Student Services, but I simply had to learn my way around. The bookstore was in the Students Union Building, and Disabled Students Services was in Athabasca Hall—both on the west side of campus
My classes took me from the Humanities building, through HUB Mall, to Dentistry, to the Old Arts building, to somewhere in the Engineering Wing. I got lost repeatedly as I found my way around.
I didn’t own a computer in those days—it was the 1980s and computers were just becoming a thing. I took braille notes in class using a slate and stylus. It usually threw off my professors the first time they heard the rapid punching of metal through thick paper. My god, that slate and stylus was loud. By the end of my undergrad degree, I had a four-drawer filing cabinet filled with braille notes. One of my prized possessions during my undergrad degree was a seventy-five volume braille dictionary that filled a six-foot-by-six-foot bookcase.
My first-year English class was an introduction to literature with Jim Nelson. I loved that class. We started with Chaucer, which blew my mind. I had the anthology on cassette tape—three dozen four-track cassettes that required a special tape player. I listened to the “Prologue” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” over and over again. Professor Nelson would walk into the class, write page numbers on the whiteboard, then lecture for forty-five minutes, leaving five minutes for questions. Those lectures were packed with information. He gave close readings of the texts, filling in historical background and pausing occasionally for anecdotes.
The first essay I wrote for Nelson’s class was an examination of three stories: “Araby” by James Joyce, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D. H. Lawrence, and “Road from Colonus” by E. M. Forster. I can’t remember what I wrote for that first English essay—I’m sure it was terrible. I do remember, however, reading the stories while the rain fell that September. I sat in the room I called a study—the second bedroom of the house where my wife and I lived. I had been a reader since I lost my sight in a car accident at the age of ten, but reading those stories was like finding literature again for the first time. I read them over and over. The dark streets and the narrator’s obsession with his friend’s sister in Joyce’s story haunted my imagination, while the darkness and strangeness of Lawrence disturbed my universe. I started university thinking I knew something about literature; I was finding out I knew much less than I thought. I had quit a job to go back to school, and I was feeling my world opening up and bottoming out at the same time. I loved university, but I always felt like an outsider. I had access to books, but only books on tape. I had it in my head that listening wasn’t the same as reading, and when I needed to use the library, I always needed help.
I got through that first year—god knows how. And near the end of the winter term, Professor Nelson ask me and a couple of other students to stay back. I was nervous—I was always nervous talking to my professors. These were the halls of learning, and I was just one more Jude the Obscure, a working-class, blind kid who didn’t belong.
Professor Nelson sat in a desk beside me, and he gave me a letter. It was a recommendation to the honours program in English. It was an important moment. Someone was telling me I had something valuable to contribute. I’ve realized since such letters are about recruitment as much as anything else, but I’ve been grateful to Professor Nelson ever since.
Universities are different places now. I have the good fortune to work for two of them, and I feel more at home now that most people work digitally. The move to an online world has enabled me to work more effectively as a teacher and a researcher. In spite of all of it, I’ve never lost that early sense of being something of an outsider—the blind guy who reads and teaches but who doesn’t use actual books. I get a whiff of this sense every time I walk into a library—a building full of books, that are to me so many bound volumes of smooth paper that always keep their secrets.

Twenty Years of Harry Potter

In 1999, on a rainy afternoon in July, I was flaked out in my room reading an audio book. My kids and I had just moved in to our new house. They came home from an afternoon with their mom, and my youngest walked into my room. She heard:

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue.
“Urgh – troll boogers.”

“What are you listening to?” she asked, laughing in surprise.
It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Correction—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. A neighbour had given me the book on cassette tape (if anyone remembers what those were), and my kid’s mom and I agreed that I would read the book before letting our kids read it. Thus began the obsession.
This June 26th marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. These books have been part of my life as a parent, an academic, and a reader for the last eighteen years.
While the Harry Potter franchise has become something of a bloated monster, I mostly simply appreciate the books as books. I’m not a Harry Potter film person, which, to some, makes me a heretic. I don’t spend any time on Pottermore, I don’t visit fans sites such as The-Leaky-Cauldron.org, and I don’t write fanfic—although I did think about it, once.
The books first entered my life as a parent. My kids and I read the books together, and we mostly listened to the Jim Dale recordings. By the time Order of the Phoenix appeared, you could sometimes hear the voice of Jim Dale coming from three different rooms in the house.
The night Deathly Hallows was released, my kids and I lined up at the south-side Indigo for copies of our books. We listened to the first chapter together, sitting at the kitchen table (it was now after 1:00 in the morning), before scattering our separate ways to read—my youngest and I through the rest of the night. The series gave me one of the many points of connection with my kids, and it carries a particular weight for that reason alone.
Teaching the book is another story. I teach either Philosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets each year in my children’s literature classes, and one year, I taught a senior level course on the series. I’ve published two articles on Harry Potter, and made several presentations at conferences. The books are rich, but as an academic, I read with a critical eye—always reminding my students that I love the series, even if I question it relentlessly on a variety of levels:

Yes, Harry Potter is a Cinderella figure.
Yes, the dialogue often gets awkward.
No, the snake that appears in the first book has nothing to do with those appearing in the second.
No, Harry’s desire to kill Sirius Black in the third book is nothing more than teenage anger and adolescent bravado.
And, did you catch the major plot problem in Goblet of Fire?

In my life as a reader, the wizarding world has an immovable place. That place isn’t that of Narnia or Middle-Earth, but it’s in there. The Harry Potter books, for me, constitute an experience of shared reading—mostly with my kids. My reading life is a private world, which probably sounds odd coming from someone who teaches for a living. But the reading I do for my classes isn’t the same as the reading I do for me: the one is meant for public consumption; the other isn’t.
In celebration of twenty years of Harry Potter, I’m providing some links to other pieces I’ve written on the series.

The Potter Effect and the School for Wizards
The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation
The Birthplace of Harry Potter
More on Harry Potter, The Glasgow Connection

Enjoy! And if you haven’t read the series, do yourself a favour and read the first book. Consider it part of your professional development as a reader. Go ahead and hate it, but you’ll at least get a glimpse into the world many people find so compelling.

Literacy and the Reading Success Story

This June marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ll have more to say on that next month. For now, one of the Google alerts I often receive is the story about the kid who didn’t read until picking up a copy of Harry Potter.
Such stories are part of the reading success narrative you will often encounter on social media. Some kid has trouble in school, and who, with the help of a compassionate teacher or librarian, turns his or her life around because of reading. These stories usually focus on a child’s experience of reading fiction for the first time. Fiction changes people’s lives; it changed mine. After losing my sight in a car accident at the age of eleven, I was introduced to books on tape. Reading has been my life and my work ever since.
As much as I want everyone to read the books that changed my life, I also recognize that reading success isn’t limited to fiction—and certainly not to the books I’ve read. Reading, at its most basic, is about literacy. It’s about one’s ability to engage with and understand the world through words and language. New comers to this country, for example, don’t need to read Harry Potter; they need a functional vocabulary in English so they can communicate effectively as they establish their new lives.
It’s also no surprise that exposing children to books at a young age helps develop their literacy early in life. A 2015 study by Dominic Massaro at the University of California suggests that reading out loud to children is actually a more effective means of building literacy than just talking to them.
Those people who identify themselves as readers are invaluable ambassadors of literacy. But here’s the flip-side. Readers can also be reading snobs.
“What! You haven’t read it!”
To my everlasting embarrassment, I’ve said this more times than I care to admit. And I’ve had people say it to me more than I like.
“What! You’re a professor, and you haven’t read it?”
Yes, I’m a professor. I read for a living. And no, I haven’t read it.
There are many paths to literacy—mine is one. Yours is another. Whether it’s Charles Dickens, romance novels, magazines, bird books, or (god help me) Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (I can’t stand these books), reading is the path to greater literacy, engagement, and critical thinking. There are, of course, those people who only read to reinforce their own beliefs or prejudices, but this doesn’t take away from the main point: deliberate and careful reading—whatever that means—makes you a more engaged and compassionate human being. And who cares if you aren’t reading what’s trendy, or new, or any of that. Just read, and encourage others in their own reading.
My early teens was the time in my life I felt most isolated. Reading helped me to understand that worlds existed beyond mine, that others had, at least in part, gone through something similar. And as alone as I felt much of the time, reading always made it easier to bear.
So be a literacy ambassador. Buy a book and give it to someone you care about. It will set you back the price of two lattes—or just go through your shelves and find something you can give away. Literacy is power, so get out there and empower someone.

Happy World Book Day!

Happy World Book Day! Take time to read a book, or share a book with someone important to you.
In honour of World Book Day, I’m re-posting a story that first appeared on my blog in June, 2014: The Dream of the Tree. You can also find it and other stories in Fractured and Other Fairy Tales on Amazon. Enjoy, and happy reading!

Once there was a man who had a dream that ruined his life. In the dream, he was walking across a vast country. He was not just walking—he was striding. He was striding with seven-league steps so that the ground beneath him and about him blurred and shimmered. He passed through forests, over great plains of grass, and through the gaps between mountains. He strode on until he saw a mountain rising up before him. It was a mountain as he had never seen a mountain before. It went up and up, climbing higher and higher until it was lost in the sky.
He paused at the foot of the mountain and looked up. There was only one thing to do. He began to climb.
He went up and up, stepping over streams, across wide meadows, and over stands of trees. He went on until he came to the end of the trees, where there was only rock. He kept climbing.
This mountain, he thought, was surely the highest mountain in the world. He climbed and climbed.
Finally, after what seemed a year and a day, the man arrived at the top of the mountain. Across a great plain, the man could see a tree. It was surely the tallest tree he had ever imagined. It went up and up until, impossibly far overhead, the tree spread its branches.
The man walked across the plain toward the foot of the immense tree. As he did, his seven-league strides kicked up swirls of leaves. There were countless numbers of them, and as he caught one of the leaves, he realized that each leaf held a story, or a fragment of a story.
He caught leaf after leaf. He read snatches of stories about people who lived and died and who fought tremendous battles. He read stories of boys and girls, stories of men and women who wandered far, searching for love, for revenge, and for treasure. He read snatches of stories about patience and greed and the longing that goes with lost love, friendship, and family.
The man looked up to the great tree. “This must be the tree where all stories come from,” he said aloud to himself.
He hurried forward to the trunk of the massive tree that rose up like a wall before him. Reaching out a hand, he touched the trunk of the great tree. For one, indefinable moment, he had a glimpse of the ongoing story of the world, from its beginning in the depths of space and time to its conclusion at the end of all things…
And then he woke. The cry that escaped his lips in that moment was a cry of grief and loss. The man had glimpsed for one instant the story of the world, and as he sobbed aloud in the gray morning, the dream began to fade.
Later that day, the man sold his house and everything he owned. He took the money from the sale of all of his belongings, and he wrapped it in a handkerchief with a loaf of bread. He left the home where he had lived all of his life and took to the road. He told himself that he was going to find that tree, even if he had to search to the ends of the earth, for he wanted just one more glimpse into that story.
And so he did. He wandered far and met many people, and to whomever would listen, he would tell what he could remember of that story and the fragments he read on the leaves. Many people thought him mad, and others just thought him a storyteller. Some were glad of his stories, but many were not, for in everyone he met, he planted a seed of that longing for the story he glimpsed when he touched the tree in his dream.

Spring Walking, Spring Reading

As the days get longer, and the university term winds down, I find myself walking more and more. These days, I’m stress walking. It’s the kind of walking I do in the spring to help me recover from the year at the university. My average is ten to twelve kilometres a day—or so my IPhone tells me. That’s enough to help me sleep at night.
Apart from the stress, spring is the best time of year to walk in Edmonton. The days become longer and longer, while the geese, robins, and crows fill the evening air with a sound like longing.
The end of term is a transitional period—a stepping out of one thing and into another. It’s also that time of year in which we, who choose to live in these northern climes, embrace our seasonal amnesia and forget the six months of winter we’ve just left behind. We see the detritus of winter littering the ground, the dull nakedness of trees, the brownness of fields, and we think it’s spring. And every year it snows in late March, April, or May, just as it did this passed Easter weekend. But do we care? No, because the sun will shine and the snow will melt and soon the world will explode in a profusion of green.
In the meantime, I walk; I walk, and I read. I have to manage myself in these transitional periods. If I don’t, I will fall on my face from exhaustion as soon as the marking is done and the grades are posted. Reading and rereading is one way I manage myself. As I’m walking this spring, here are some of the books I’m reading.

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven was the MacEwan book of the year for 2016-17. I read the book for that reason, but I also love dystopian fiction—and this one is by a Canadian. And, I was able to hear St. John Mandel read at MacEwan this past March.

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood

And speaking of dystopian fiction written by a Canadian, I’m finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not a big Atwood fan, and I had trouble getting through Oryx and Crake, the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. However, I’m determined to read this book. I have a softer spot for Atwood after seeing her very disarming and personal talk at last year’s Kreisel Lecture in Edmonton.

Great Schools of Dune Series
Sisterhood of Dune
Mentats of Dune
Navigators of Dune
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Herbert and Anderson continue their stories in the Dune saga, created by Frank Herbert. None of the books by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson match the books in the original series, but if you want to immerse yourself in a science fiction universe, this is one place to do it.

The Underland Chronicles
By Susanne Collins

Before she wrote The Hunger Games, Collins wrote The Underland Chronicles, five books about Gregor and his adventures in the underworld that lies deep below New York city. This is a lost civilization series, populated with giant bats, cockroaches, and rats, all in a battle for control of the Underland. Great coming of age stuff.

Warriors of the Storm
By Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles are set in the Britain of Alfred the Great, and each one is a wild ride—battles, horses, long boats, Northmen, and a mostly corrupt Christian church, all narrated by Uhtred of Bebbenburg. This is the ninth book in the series, and I’ve loved them all. Again, if you want to lose yourself in another world, and another time, check out this series.

Happy spring, and happy reading!

On the Tracks

My brother, who is always a source for bits of news, told me the other night about a visually impaired man who fell onto the tracks of the SkyTrain in Vancouver. Fortunately, some quick-acting students were there to help the gentleman out of the tracks—just as the train was pulling in. You can read more of the story here.
For blind and visually impaired people, navigating public transit can be tricky—and sometimes just bloody dangerous. Buses are one thing: you wait, bus pulls into the stop, and you get on. Trains are different. For one, it’s a train. Trains don’t stop as quickly as buses, and you have to wait on a platform next to a four and a half foot drop into the tracks. If you can’t see, it’s hazardous.
In 2010, I was coming home by train on a snowy evening at the beginning of January. I got off the train at the South Campus station, which had opened the previous spring. I stepped off the train, turned left instead of right, and headed down the platform to get the bus.
My mistake was turning the wrong way after getting off the train. The platform was covered with almost an inch of snow. They hadn’t yet had a chance to clear it.
I was heading for what I thought was the steps to take me down and out of the station. Instead, I walked straight off the platform and fell onto the tracks.
My initial response, lying there on the tracks on my side, was having no idea what had just happened. It wasn’t until I reached out and grabbed one of the rails with a gloved hand that I understood. That’s when I started to hurt and knew I had to get off the tracks.
The track-bed isn’t especially deep—until you’re standing in it. Try scrambling up onto a platform, slippery with new-fallen snow and level with your chest, while you are in shock and can’t breathe because you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you.
Fortunately, someone spotted me. A man ran over, and soon two people were hauling me up onto the platform. Other people came, and I was helped to my feet and onboard the train while the driver called for an ambulance. A slightly scared and completely sincere eight-year-old boy tried to comfort me while we waited for the paramedics. He insisted his grandpa would help fix my cane, which had gotten bent in the fall. The paramedics arrived, announced me injured but more or less intact, and gave me the choice of going home or to the hospital. Given the choice, I went home. They drove me the seven minutes back to my house, and I was never so glad to reach my own front door.
I fractured two ribs in that fall, and it took me all of eight weeks to recover. It wasn’t until February that I started taking the train once again—more carefully, as you can imagine.
I’ve gotten myself into all sorts of situations over the years, but rarely have I felt so helpless and in need of assistance. Strangers helping strangers is a powerful thing, and I’ve always been grateful to those people who helped me out on that snowy evening in January, especially that little boy, who understood the importance of helping out, and did his best to give me the comfort and reassurance he could.