By Carter Piagentini ’25
Writing Tutor Practicum
As part of the Writing Tutor Practicum, I ask students to explore memorable moments in their literacy history in a literacy autobiography to help them learn about themselves as writers and readers and to prepare them to work with their peers on their writing. In this essay, Carter explores the negative and haunting impact of re-medial reading teaching on him and his writing, and he describes his first foray into the realm of poetry. In the end, he declares his independence from prescriptive literacy practices, a reminder we all need from time to time.
-Dr. Sue Pagnac
I’m often haunted by the feeling of being called out of my 2nd-grade class during the middle of a lesson to go practice my reading skills every week. An old lady would quietly peek her head through the door, whisper something to the teacher, and then I would find myself being led down the hall to a different room. Eventually, this became an unspoken contract. She peeked her head into the classroom and I reluctantly got up and shamefully walked down to that same room to find myself a seat at the elbow-shaped table among some of my classmates. They also had to withstand this same weekly misfortune.
We would watch as the reading teacher would reach behind her and pull out papers from a red folder and then slide one to each of us from across the table–a new story we would have to decipher. My eyes would immediately begin to panic at the sight of all the words and the length of the paragraphs and in their silent trepidation, an overwhelming signal of distress would be sent to my brain, effectively dazing it. With alarm, I waited reluctantly for my turn to read the next paragraph out loud. A classmate finished their paragraph and as a wave of relief revitalized them, my heart would stop in a worried anticipation. Would she call my name next? “Carter!” She would say, beckoning me to start reading.
I would slowly begin reading with audible agitation. With every word I pitifully uttered, my heart pumped more and more apprehension through my body. The reading teacher’s glare was withering, and I would no longer be able to contain my anxiety. The words I was reading would start to trip over my tongue and my perturbation would start to pour out of my skin. My face would turn hot under the scorching gaze of the teacher as I started fumbling. A mistake! The teacher would sternly correct my pronunciation and I would quickly continue. Maybe if I finished swiftly then all the attention would divert onto the next person. It always did.
This dreaded event would continue until fourth grade, when I was finally withdrawn from this extra service. Instead, I was now given a third of a sheet of paper that contained 3 unpunctuated sentences and was expected to correctly place squiggles and dots–that I later would learn were called commas and periods. These ‘mini-tests’ would be handed back to me with a new, large red marking that would bleed heavily to the other side of the paper that typically read “C.” This letter deterred me from reading and writing and I often felt that the subjects had a special contempt for someone of my ineptitude.
These are the first literacy experiences I can recall. Well, these and the crying that would ensue immediately after. I think that this ‘reading and grammar performance’ fear has subconsciously festered inside my mind and, even now, has resulted in an inconclusive habit I’ve created. For the hour after finishing an essay, I will read and reread it until my eyes are completely fried. Then, under the guise of telling myself I’m done, I’ll finally submit the finished essay, walk away from my computer to pace about what I just did, and then find myself exasperatedly rereading my already submitted essay. Sometimes this agitation even continues into me creating hypothetical responses in preparation to defend my work. After all, fourth grade me wasn’t capable of refuting a C that was written in permanent red Sharpie, but maybe college sophomore me would be able to justify my rhetoric and comma usage.
This is the barrage I face when assigned a writing assignment: an endeavor of constantly plugging sentences into Grammarly and paragraphs into PaperRater to make sure they are refined to an unequivocal paragon of correct punctuation. And as I reflect on these memories and habits, I feel a scared thought of incompetence that has been perpetuated in my writing career. This idea that controls my writing process and decrees for a linear, cut and dry path in an expansive, creative craft. I want to say that this intimidating resource room teacher and these abrasive, red C’s have caused me to not only fixate on perfection in my writing but also on my writing’s cohesion.
I write my essays from top to bottom. I start with my introductory paragraph, trudge through my body paragraphs, and then regurgitate a synopsis for my conclusion paragraph. I don’t dare to mess up this order. Part of me might say that this is the method that works best for me, but another part, one that might be less bitter towards revealing these sensibilities, would probably relate this method to the feeling of ineptitude I felt while decrypting new stories and decoding the secret usages of commas. I understand and grew up with that feeling of not being able to just ‘get it.’ I find my direct method to have resulted from these feelings of incompetence because if I don’t write as linearly as my train of thought, I fear my work will suffer from a loss of intelligibility. I desperately want my works to be clear and reasonable, unlike those stories I couldn’t grasp.
Eventually sapped by these step-by-step laid out directions of how to write an essay, I started dabbling in poetry. I was enamored with being able to cut a line in half at whim or even end and start a new stanza with the reasoning being “because I felt like it.” This isn’t an aspect I’ve found to be true for academic essays. And with academic essays, I must support my ideas. I must cite a myriad of sources to analyze an experience, even if it is my own experience. But poetry wasn’t like that. Poetry could just be a thought that existed for the sole purpose of existence. Poetry can not languish from a lack of sources nor must it be burdened by constant formality.
Typically, I started these explorations near midnight. Although my eyes would ache to sleep, my mind would often refuse them the indulgence of rest. Instead, it would remain a hardwired machine that would jump from thought to thought, vigilantly analyzing each one as not to miss a single infinitesimal detail. Eventually, it would stumble upon a phrase or idea that it enjoyed:
It was easier to lie and say what I’m not,/Instead of explaining everything I thought.
When this happened, my arm would surge towards my phone to quickly write down that phrase before my brain forgot it in its volatility. If that sentence was lucky, my mind would fixate on it causing me to repeat this action of adding a few more lines:
I lived a prevarication,/Because the words we lost in simple translation.//I deluded my friends, and those who surround me./All simply because my thoughts would flee. After another sentence or two, I would turn back over and try to rest. But my mind is still discontent with not having explored this topic completely. Again, I’m reaching for my phone, but this time, it’s to finish the poem:
It was easier to lie and say what I’m not,
Instead of explaining everything I thought.
I lived a prevarication,
Because the words were lost in simple translation.
I deluded my friends, and those who surround me.
All simply because my thoughts would flee.
From brain to mouth, my words would smudge,
And to this day my tongue won’t budge.
I’m still searching for a word to describe who I am,
But until then, I’m simply a scam.
So I’ll lie and say what I’m not,
Because it’s easier than saying my innermost thoughts.
This was the result of my first venture into poetry. An outlet where I no longer had to fear a misplaced comma or poor source usage in my exploration of my gay identity. This craft’s lessons prevailed in my academic writing process as well. In poetry, I was required to give constant thought to my previous line and this attentiveness would carry over into my inner essayist. I now pause, significantly more times than the word ‘often’ suggests, in order to examine the current shape of my work and where it is going. If my poetry can directly portray a message by using so little words, then why must my writings be weighed with trivial fluff?