A COMEDY & A TRAGEDY: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write by Travis Hugh Culley shares his story of slipping through the cracks in school, hiding his illiteracy and struggling with depression, anxiety, and dyslexia. Later, arts and humanities programs inspired him to be successful in education, and through theater, he realizes the power of being able to read. As a teacher, this book was hard to read - have I let a kid slip through the cracks that I should have helped? It's also encouraging, hearing the story of how one student overcame the odds to be highly successful, and provides hope that others can do the same.
I had a chance to interview Travis to learn more.
- What inspired you to share your story?
My journey through education was not just difficult, or uncommon, it was horrendous. My school was overcrowded, and I wasn’t safe from abuse or humiliation when I came home. My parents never taught my brother and myself to get along or to work out our issues, so even at home, I had no relief.
After the completion of The Immortal Class, my first book, I decided that I needed to unravel these difficult and complex experiences that I went through in childhood, and tell the story of how I came to be a published author after many years of rejecting and refusing the power of the written word.
- How did you manage to continue to pass through grades without being able to read?
I thought it was my smile, maybe. In the cultural environment where I lived, I suppose a certain element of prejudice made it possible for me to narrowly pass from grade to grade without having my vulnerabilities understood. Teachers weren’t close enough to catch my thinking process in the classroom. My third grade teacher did discover my effort to conceal my thinking process from her, but she did not understand that my lack of focus and distractibility were only evidence of my inability to read. I became unwilling to try.
- Why were the arts successful in giving you literacy?
When I came upon the prospect of doing theater, of performing in a juggling troupe and acting in plays, it was rewarding to find that I now had an open field to explore. I was no longer being measured by the right or wrong way to approach the material. Standards were not based on pre-established answers to tests. In the theater, standards of “good” and “bad” were based on creative thinking skills and understanding situations. No longer did I need to have the right answers. Now, I only had to get a reaction from my audience. Under these more liberal circumstances, I was able to interact more freely with fellow students and I could begin to learn in the context of my peers, in the changing contexts which the theater made available. Learning at this level was based on my own interest and investment. I think, the moment I was given a real chance to think for myself, I had also been given my first chance to succeed.
- What advice do you have for parents in schools where the arts are being cut?
We cannot allow schools to reduce the arts to extras and electives. I think the arts and humanities are essential to a good education because they teach, in non-theoretical terms, the importance of critical thinking and collaboration. It is only in the arts and humanities that students are given the chance to teach themselves, and to learn at a pace that is right for them. The arts are an opportunity for students to learn directly from the world as it is and seems to them. This can mean therapy to the vulnerable, and it can mean solidarity to the misinformed. In one way or another, the arts give students power over the meaning of what they doing in school.
- What do you wish your teachers would have done differently?
|Photo by Megan Hickling|
I went to a number of different schools, and I am lucky to have done so. In some classes, I had teachers who went by the book, and in other classes I had teachers who never opened books. Looking back, I think I learned more from the teachers who dared to keep the books closed long enough to relay honestly the context of the lesson. I had teachers who were willing to be truthful about what we were learning, and this allowed me to look into the books when the time came for me to see their value.
I think teachers everywhere need to approach their classrooms with the same kind of creativity and openness that I found at New World School of the Arts. It was not an unstructured learning opportunity. It was more like a curriculum of self discovery. I agree with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Tolstoy, and Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori. Play is the best part of experience, and so I believe that learning should take place in a space that is open to experimentation and truthfulness. Only this way will students take the most important step: trusting their teachers to learn.
About A COMEDY & A TRAGEDY:
Until he was seventeen, critically acclaimed writer Travis Hugh Culley could neither read nor write. The child of an abusive father and an emotionally absent mother, Travis struggled in school, inventing creative strategies to hide his illiteracy. Shaken by a traumatic incident one summer, Travis withdrew further, cutting classes and running away from home to learn on his own terms. A COMEDY & A TRAGEDY: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write (Ballantine Hardcover) is author and playwright Travis Hugh Culley’s vividly powerful memoir of his long and arduous journey to literacy. Overcoming abuse, a negligent family, a broken public school system and an undiagnosed learning disability, Travis’s is the true underdog story—by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.