One of my nephews, a six year old, dislikes reading. However, disregarding Rousseau’s advice that one should never pressurise a child that dislikes literature to read, one of the duties set to me by my family is to read with him once every day, since it is apparent he is not as gifted in learning or as disciplined as his slightly older cousin, who is in the same year at school.
Now, during the reading session, the child shows every sign of resistance to the reading. At the start of the session, he will not settle down to the task, runs upstairs to get away, will not switch off the distracting television, he has even been known to begin crying on occasion. During the session, he often interrupts the reading by suddenly wandering off to find his mother, flicking through the book to look at the pictures instead of reading the words, grabbing nearby toys and distractedly playing with them and reading in an excruciatingly slow manner. If he is left to read without the use of my finger pointing at the text, he is unable to follow the direction of the text and skips the lines he is reading, without paying attention to the ungrammatical construction which links two lines that aren’t consecutive. Even when he does read and is questioned as to what has happened in the text, he is often unable to recall the events in the narrative, because he has paid insufficient attention to the storyline, reading instead in a mechanical manner.
The child made a significant mistake in reading recently which I will now describe. In a short paragraph of spoken words, he confused the important letter ‘I’ with the word ‘It’. I pointed out this mistake to him and told him to pay more attention to the letter, since it was an important one. The child then made the same mistake when he encountered the letter again in the next few lines or so. This was provoking, so I told him off, reminding him to pay attention to his mistakes and to make sure that he did not make them again. I pointed out that ‘I’ was a simple letter in the alphabet and should present no problems to a child of his age – he had already read through a whole host of children’s books with me. Now, for the third time, after being told off, the child persisted in making the mistake a few more lines along, a mere matter of seconds later.
This mistake in reading can be seen to signify on a number of levels. Firstly, perhaps the most immediate interpretation is that the mistake is a resistance in identification. The child is not interested in the book and he does not identify with the characters, the ‘I’ in the text. He thus dehumanizes the character by making it an ‘it’, a mere thing. For him, the characters have no life and no identity. The second interpretation is perhaps more interesting. Psychoanalysis says that we all have to accustom ourselves to representing ourselves through the shared, public ‘I’, which then takes on a private character for ourselves. ‘I’ is after all, ‘me’. The child’s refusal to identify with the ‘I’ of literature, the shared, public signifier can be seen as a strategy of resistance to becoming assimilated into the ‘symbolic order’.
Of course, without the free associations of the child, the full significance of the I/It mistake is lost. As an uncle, I refrain from asking my nephews the associations around their ideas. Yet, it is worth bearing an important point in mind. The shape of the ‘t’ is a ‘cross’ shape. The nephew in question is the only one interested in ‘God’, the concept of the Christian (who knows where he gets this religious streak from – most probably a peer at school). If the child refuses to disassociate the ‘I’ from the ‘t’, it could very well be the religious association that is being made.