How I Learned to Read

I have a horrible cold and my throat hurts very badly. The baby didn’t sleep well tonight, and I’m tired but I still have a whole day of traveling ahead of me. I will only arrive in St. Louis at 11 pm. And in the midst of all this, I have to awaken to some spoiled rich brat accusing me of “privilege” on my blog because I suggested that parents who don’t even teach their own kids to read are irresponsible. So let me tell you how my uber-privileged Soviet parents taught me to read.

In the USSR, my father, a linguist by profession who worked at a research institution, made 110 rubles per month before taxes. Just to compare, a pair of winter boots cost upwards of 200 rubles, a pair of jeans upwards of 150 rubles. (And you had to travel all the way to Moscow to get them, which cost extra). There was no food in the stores, so you had to pay insane prices at the black market even for basic things like butter.

Both my parents worked day and night to provide for us. I barely even saw my mother who had to teach 10 classes a day six days a week (those among us who teach will understand how hard this is). And then there was grading, class planning, and the endless Soviet bureaucracy.

So to teach me to read, my mother put up a board on the wall where she would leave a short message for me before going to work. I missed my mamma whom I never got to see, so all day long I worked on deciphering her message. And then I’d try to leave my own message for her.

This is how we, the children of privilege, acquire our knowledge.

20 thoughts on “How I Learned to Read”

  1. Also off-topic, and please forgive a possibly privileged one born in the other part of the SU – but was it really that bad all the time, or only in the end of the eighties?


    1. We were just discussing this with my family yesterday. They say that in 2astern Ukraine, things were very good foodwise until the end of the sixties. They say you could just go into a store in the middle of the day and buy cheese, and chocolates, and even caviar. Then during the early seventies food started disappearing until, by the beginning of the 80ies, there was absolutely nothing anywhere.

      Was it like that in your republic?

      My husband who was born on Moscow Oblast had it a lot better food-wise. They ate cheese all the time. Colonizers.


      1. —Was it like that in your republic?

        It got worse in the end of 70-ies before the Moscow Olympic games. But “worse” means that they did not sell more than one pack of butter to one customer. And getting desired food required scanning several shops and wasting a lot of time.
        This is more or less how it was until the end of the 80-ies, when it got really bad, as bad as you say it was, but for relatively short period of time. There were food coupons for sugar, butter, soap, alcohol and some other things.


  2. Argh. I find the concept of privilege useful occasionally, but it’s one of my bitchy-mc-crabby-pants bugbears in general conversation. If you think someone’s missing the point, you should just frigging say so, not attempt to dismiss the speaker by baffling them with sociology speak. Besides which, a lot of the time, people use it when they actually mean: You don’t agree with me, therefore you must be wrong. A lot like, ‘You’re interrogating the text from the wrong perspective!’ which has a similarly limited functional use.


    1. Well, one can always talk of privilege. Of having parents who can read, for example … it’s always easy to tease out some way in which things could be worse/better, or differently bad/good … you’re right, missing the point is often the more useful phrase to use if you think someone’s missed your or a point! ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Thanks for writing this. I’ve got all the time in the world for “privilege” as a workable concept in intersectionality theory and no time at all for “privilege” as a half arsed lazy insult on the blogosphere.
    I think a lot of the time it is rich kids “calling each other out” or more likley pulling rank on each other.
    If you can’t gain your debate points in the oppression olympics by pointing to any hardship personally suffered, at least you can get in early with a declaration that “hey I acknowledge my privilege” and then put someone else down for not saying the same thing as early or as loud. Grrrrr


  4. “I have to awaken to some spoiled rich brat accusing me of โ€œprivilegeโ€ on my blog because I suggested that parents who donโ€™t even teach their own kids to read are irresponsible.”

    Point me to this post? I can’t find it on my own.

    Also, this is a fabulous story. My own parents, who had to work similarly hard, taught me how to read before I started school, and I do mean read, not just the alphabets, in both Bengali and English. And then my great aunt, who was a teacher, kept supplying me with free sample texts of history, literature, geography et al to devour, since we could not always afford to buy books.

    On the other hand, Clarissa, part of my work is with public education in India, which serves the national majority who live below the poverty line. These parents also have to work hard, like yours and mine, except that they hadn’t the benefit of the education that ours had. They work on the fields, in brick kilns, or in people’s homes, or as unskilled uninsured labourers in construction. These people have neither the education nor the time to teach their kids after a gruelling 12-hour work day and up to 3 hour commute each way. I cannot in any stretch of logic or rationality call these parents irresponsible. Neither can I advocate refusing their children an education on those grounds.

    So if someone suggests you were privileged, Clarissa, they are right. Just as I was, despite eating salt and rice some days for lunch and only seeing my parents for dinner. Given that, it is perhaps in your own intellectual interest to re-evaluate your stance on ‘privilege’. It’s not a crime, nor a matter of shame per se, to be the beneficiary of structural forces beyond your control. But it is, I think, deeply undemocratic to dismiss the systematic exclusion from basic resources that thousands across the world suffer from.

    Unless, of course, this one of ways in which you get more traffic on your blog, in which case all the best! ๐Ÿ˜‰


    1. It’s this comment: I hope the link takes you there. It’s comment #13 in the Kids of the Technology Generation.

      I was obviously referring to North American families in my post. I don’t think people who work in the fields in India have that much of a problem with toddlers being glued to iPads. I can’t even afford an iPad, they are so expensive. If a person who works in a brick kiln comes here to tell me I’m privileged, we’ll discuss that. What really bugs me, though, is that some American-born spoiled brat who has no idea what it means to be born where I was to accuse me of privilege.


  5. Ah, I see. So when you say you object to the idea of people being privileged, you are only objecting to a very specific group of people? This was not clear to me at all in the many discussions on privilege on this blog. I got the impression you refused to acknowledge privilege of any kind existed anywhere at all in this world, and naturally, this completely befuddled me.

    And I have now seen the comment. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here — perhaps you know who the commentator is? — but I personally see no indication this person is an US-born rich kid. Either way, an Anonymous comment is a little like throwing a stone and running away — cowardly and distasteful.


    1. The problem with the word “privilege” is that I only ever hear it used by people who have had extremely comfortable lives and who bandy it about to feel self-righteous. I have spent some time with people who live in dire poverty, hunger and horrible privations (that was in Cuba.) If they wanted to discuss that they see my life as privileged, I would definitely listen and respect their perspective. However, coming to them and starting to pity them and condescend to them by bemoaning my “privilege” would be humiliating to them and very self-aggrandizing for me. Which is why it bugs me so much when rich spoiled brats take their pity where it was neither asked for nor expected.


  6. I am confused. You do not approve of home schooling but you think parents should teach their children to read?? Contradiction lurking, big time, methinks!

    I am temporarily changing my email address here, since the email server at work is turned off because of hurricane Irene.


    1. ” You do not approve of home schooling but you think parents should teach their children to read?? Contradiction lurking, big time, methinks!”

      -Where’s the contradiction?? I also think that parents have to teach their children to walk, brush their teeth, dress themselves, eat with a fork, and do many other things. What does any of this have to do with homeschooling which deprives kids from normal socialization.

      I’ve had a chance to observe my 20-month-old niece recently and realized that even those people who deprive their kids of daycare to justify their desire not to work are selfish beyond belief.


    2. “I am temporarily changing my email address here, since the email server at work is turned off because of hurricane Irene.”

      -I hope you don’t suffer because of the hurricane!!!


      1. The rain is getting harder, but my home seems to be somewhat protected from the wind. The start of the semester has been delayed until further notice. Classes were supposed to begin on Tuesday, with students arriving this weekend.


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