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Reading, Writing, Resistance

Posted: 2003-11-21

Anne Lamott remembers her SRA experiences.

. . .I remembered something that gave me some faith: that I survived the SRA reading program when I was young. Some people loved it, but for me, there were tiny flies in the ointment -- for instance, it destroyed my life and whatever shred of confidence and hope I may have had as a child. But it also taught me a technique I could apply when learning some difficult lessons in the world, on death, motherhood, romance, writing. I realized in the car that I could apply this system to mastering the VCR.

First I should tell those of you lucky enough to have escaped SRA what it was. It consisted of a file box about the size you'd store 45s in, with colored tabs separating reading materials and vocabulary words in order of difficulty. So the beginning lessons, the easier stuff, would be under the red tab, say; and then the next-harder material would be contained behind the yellow tabs. You worked your way all the through the colors, to the silver and gold tabs. You got to go at your own pace, and you got to check your own answers against the correct ones. It sounds so elegant and benevolent, but then again, so did fen-phen. So did Joan Crawford.

Some of my classmates seemed to enjoy their lessons, but I see now that this was an act of hostility. Whenever I started a new set of tabs, I felt like a cartoon character whose heart is pounding with fear and you can see it pushing like a piston out of their chest. The pressure was so extreme for me, the constant testing, the desperate need to succeed, the fear of failure, the sense of being on a tightrope about to fall. Everyone would see that I was a fraud -- not in fact one of the smartest kids, but one the dumbest.

I began getting migraines by first grade, when we started SRA, as the surface tension stretched too tight over that black hole of being a damaged, worried little girl. Brainstorms crashed through the crazy village of my mind, and I felt like it all might suddenly flare into nothingness. I'd have to leave my classroom to lie on the bathroom floor, so the cool tiles would mild down my headache, as Sam said once.

My teachers were really lovely, though, and they always stepped in when all hope was lost. They'd walk me through the dark mornings of the soul. But the catch was, if you somehow scrabbled and cheated your way through one batch of colored tabs, you were still not saved. It only bought you a little time. Then you had to start a whole new batch of material, behind the green tabs, say, and you would stare at it hopelessly, because there wouldn't be one question you knew the answer to, one vocabulary word you recognized, and you'd know you'd reached the end of the line.

I'm still getting over it. . . .

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