silent reading

Earlier this year, life writing scholars Julie Rak and Anna Poletti published their edited collection, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online. The book examines how it is that we present ourselves in cyberspace and considers the autobiographical traces that media such as Facebook and Twitter, among others, allow individuals to leave behind. This work contributes to what Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson earlier referred to as “everyday autobiography,” the bits and pieces of selves that we leave in the most mundane places.

I was struck by this the other day as I cleared out my younger son’s backpack. Among the various bits of crumpled paper, I found this image::


When questioned, he said he and his friend wrote it when they were supposed to be doing “silent reading.” My dad helpfully pointed out that while this wasn’t necessarily the original intent of silent reading, it was most certainly reading and it was most certainly silent.

I was immediately transported to my own school days. As a teenager, I was a virtuoso note writer and sharer. I regularly had several notes, to several different classmates, on my desk and I juggled these relationships with (what I thought was) aplomb. In one instance, I carried on a conversation with someone in an entirely different class, slipping notes under the framing of the desk we shared … and I didn’t even know who this person was! Pictures. Stories. Jokes. All moved from pen to pen, desk to desk, student to student. I don’t remember the specifics of what I wrote, but I do remember spending many happy hours trying to slip this activity past my unsuspecting teachers.

Only one teacher – my grade 12 math teacher – ever confronted me about it. He stopped me one day, in mid note passing, to ask if passing notes was affecting my grade. With a 90% average in math, I could honestly say that it wasn’t affecting my marks at all (although, I suppose I could have aimed for a 95, but what’s the point of that?). He then asked my friend, who, I’m sad to say, had to admit that it was affecting her marks. That put an end to our epistolary relationship. Fortunately, however, I had two other notes on the go….

Looking back (and through the eyes of an experienced teacher), I suspect that most teachers knew but either didn’t care or decided it wasn’t the fight they wanted to pick.

And now, almost thirty years later, here I am, looking at my son’s own note passing activities. What fascinates me are the kinds of traces he (and his friend) are leaving behind. Consider, for example, the form of the exchange, which is so clearly influenced by cyber-identites. It’s not just a note passed in class: it’s a chat room, it’s texting, it’s almost like a short twitter exchange.

And then there’s the content. What a treat it is to see 8 year old minds in action: the conversations about work that eerily echo adult conversations. And the little bit about the spelling test. But even more spectacular is the political conversation in the middle.

“Did you hear about the priemier?”

“so sad.”

“hope new one’s good! :(”

“yup. :(”

It’s not something you’d expect to see in notes from a grade 3 classroom. And that, to me, speaks directly to the nature of the kids involved. As a pre-schooler, our son entertained daycare staff with the rants about our prime minister and why he had to go. He’s long been fascinated by the theatricality of the political sphere, by the drama and the gesticulations and grand statements. And we talk about politics at home on a regular basis, and we most definitely discussed the resignation of our most recent premier. So, in this sense, it comes as no surprise that he’d be able to respond to his classmate’s question. But equally fascinating to me is her own budding political identity. After all, she’s the one who brought it up. Not only was this obviously also a topic of conversation at her house, but it was interesting enough that she wanted to share it at school.

In truth, this is nothing more than a fleeting glimpse of my son’s personality, his character, his life story. But as an autobiographical trace, it’s rich with meanings. What else is he writing in his silent reading chat room? What other stories might I find in the crumpled papers of his backpack?


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