Literacy for Her Birthday

by Jim Burke

Most mornings I get to a cafe by six a.m. where I prepare for the day, read the paper, finish those last few papers, or do a little writing. The other day Cami, one of my former students from long ago, stopped by with her daughter as they usually do before mom heads off to work and her daughter is off to preschool. They varied their routine on this occasion, however: Cami got her latte and her daughter got her usual hot chocolate and madeline–then whipped out her bright red Moleskine notebook.

Sitting behind me, they talked about her daughter’s upcoming fifth birthday party, a key event in the life of any child. What I could not help noticing, as I divided my attention between doing my own work and listening to mother and daughter talk, was how many academic skills and mental moves Cami was conveying and modeling over the cocoa and madeline. A snippet of the conversation sounded something like this:

Cami: Why don’t we make a list? I find it helpful to make a list when I want to remember things.

Daughter: Okay. (She is about to write her friend’s name down…)

Cami: (interrupting her daughter before she starts) I like to number my lists. It helps me keep track of how many things I need to do or how many people we are inviting.

Daughter: Like this? (she writes the number 1)

Cami: Yes. You know, I also find it helpful–and it looks nicer, I think–to put one parenthesis and a period after each number like this (she models) and then leave a space or two between each number in case I think of other things to add in later).

So it went. She’s not even five, but her mother is seamlessly grooming her, apprenticing her for school where such details help bring order and clarity to thinking. No doubt the same conversation took place, or some variation of it, between Cami and her mother, which would explain why she was such an excellent student back then and is, I have no doubt, such a successful woman.

As I leave to go to work, I bid them both a nice day (they are up to ten names for the birthday list at that point), realizing as I am about to go that my own daughter had just turned the age Cami was when I taught her years before when she was a freshman.

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