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In this powerful memoir, former bicycle messenger and acclaimed author of The Immortal Class recounts his difficult journey to literacy.
A Comedy & A Tragedy is the story of one young man’s effort to teach himself to read. Complex and many-leveled, this book is also a manifesto about the acquisition of intellectual independence. It is a plea for better understanding of the impact of dysfunctional family dynamics in education, and a passionate indictment of a broken school system that lets so-called problem kids slip through the cracks.
When Travis Hugh Culley moves with his family to Miami in the spring of 1980, the bright six-year-old hopes things will be easier for him. Instead, he is dubbed “Birdbrain” by his older brother and classified by his new teachers as a discipline problem. Travis fakes his way through tests and homework assignments, mimicking his fellow students and pretending to know how to read. When his music teacher suggests that he audition for an acting program, Travis begins an unlikely path toward literacy.
The moment Travis begins to perform, he is confronted by his angry father, who is threatened by the transformation in his son. Unsure of how to make sense of what has happened, Travis grabs a pen and writes his experience down. Suddenly, everything can be seen in a new light. Having written, he begins to understand in a new way the relationship between words and actions.
When his parents separate and his grades fall, Travis clings to a journal in which he notes the details of his changing life. Having no place else to turn to process his emotions, Travis lays claim to the project of his own emancipation. This troubled student runs away from home but does not drop out of school. With pen in hand, he commits to an education in the theater and begins to fully realize the power and importance of literacy. Travis discovers that only through the mastery of writing can he determine his place in the world. Eventually, he will become an accomplished author—with a triumphant story to tell. A Comedy & A Tragedy is an important and inspired memoir that will touch the hearts of parents, teachers, students, and anyone who has struggled with traumatic experiences in education. It is a work of love, of friendship, and of confidence in one young scholar’s infinite belief in language. Advance praise for A Comedy & A Tragedy
“This tale of struggle, survival, and triumph addresses the inner lives of children and the grave responsibility of adults to ensure that their voices are heard. Readers will readily warm to the story of a bright, illiterate boy who is destined to become a lauded writer.”—Publishers Weekly “The story of how writing became a means of healing . . . a testimony to the liberating power of art.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A starkly unusual and unusually compelling story.”—Booklist
Praise for Travis Hugh Culley’s The Immortal Class
“An important new critical voice.”—Library Journal
“A truly stunning book, completely original, a mixture of autobiography and philosophical treatise.”—Booklist
“An ever-kinetic prose straddling narrative and polemic, with an ear all the while for the small pebbles slipping beneath its feet.”—The Seattle Times
From the Hardcover edition.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from A Comedy & A Tragedy
I looked out the window of my dad’s brown van, watching trees pass by. My mom and brother, Joe, were strapped in behind their seat belts, waving goodbye to the mountains in the rearview mirror. It was the spring of 1980, and we were driving from Denver, Colorado, to Miami, Florida. A truck filled with furniture and clothes drove east a few hours ahead of us.
Feeling the van rock side to side, I caught myself staring at miles of wheat and corn, barbed-wire fences, and occasional barrels of hay. Looking ahead, smelling the pine and horses, feeling the wind carry, I felt that my life was changing. Houses peered out at us and vanished. Once fascinated, I had to wonder where they went. Whole towns disappeared, never to be seen again. One moment I saw cabbages, radio towers, farms, and then empty stretches of road.
Weeks before, Joe and I had been taken out of school to prepare for our move back east. Joe was in the third grade. I was in the first. Before our move I asked him, thinking he knew better, how things would be different in Florida. He looked around at the schoolyard where we stood:
“Everything will be different.”
We moved into a neighborhood house with an acre yard that sat back from the shoulder of a busy two-lane street in North Miami. The house was spacious and open. The walls were paneled with stained wood. The hall creaked and moaned. There was a porch at the front of the house and an enclosed swimming pool in the back. The screens whistled differently in the warm wind. The windows were glass venetian-style shutters, thin plates that we opened and closed with little metal dials. Each window was covered by an awning, and so the house was always dark within, even when we had every light on. Dad thought we had no room to complain. With a pool and a backyard like ours, he was sure Joe and I had everything we should need.
Dad warned us that we would soon be going to a bigger school, and that we’d need to prepare ourselves. First of all, Miami was nothing like the suburbs of Denver. Here, we’d be taking classes with people from all over the world. We’d have to learn to talk with different kinds of people, and even deal with the sense of being a minority in some of our classrooms, although this, he suggested, wasn’t really true and would in time wear off. Passing tests and turning in assignments should be easy. The problem would be the jealousy of other boys, he said. At school, kids would envy us because we were luckier than they. He had this phrase: most likely to succeed.
Here began two very different journeys in education. My brother would become an honors student, earning high marks and graduating easily. I would be called a discipline problem. My path would be beset with many obstacles, and I would remain illiterate until high school.
When our mother brought us in to register for classes, it was March, only nine weeks from the end of the school year. She parked the Pinto on the street and led us into Biscayne Gardens Elementary through a side door. Together, we found ourselves in a desolate hall that seemed to have no end and, for the moment, only one boy standing halfway down the expanse of classrooms, facing the wall. Mom walked up to the boy and asked him where the principal’s office was. The boy spun but did not answer. Instead, he held his breath, blowing his cheeks out like a blowfish, and pointed farther up the hall.
“Why are you holding your breath?” I asked him. He was my age.
“I’m in trouble,” he said, inflating.
“Talking in class,” he peeped, his shoulders high.
I looked to my mom: You can’t talk in these classrooms? But then he laughed and I laughed and we were friends. This was Bruce Melvin Woolever, Jr. As luck would have it, I would be placed in his first-grade class. He and I would follow each other, hopscotch, through the next ten years, depending on each other at some of the hardest turns.
Bruce and I were nothing alike. He came from a busy home with three younger sisters. His father was Italian, his mother Guatemalan. He was mixed, he said, in quotes. At home they spoke Spanish and English interchangeably, and were probably more literate in each language than I was in my own. Bruce didn’t feel superior about this. The world was big enough for all kinds of people. His perspective was admirable. He said that everyone had something to laugh about. Even those people who don’t want to laugh at all or find any joke funny ever—even they have something to laugh about. He laughed himself silly saying this.
Unlike me, Bruce had little shame getting attention. Unlike my brother, he was gentle and motivated by sympathy. Bruce was never hurtful. He did not see stereotypes or respond to clichés. To him, things were funny in themselves. I could give some turn to a phrase and he would take it straight: “My brother is going to get it someday, I swear.”
“Get it? Get what? Oh! I get it—I got it!” Then he’d fake like I’d hit him and stagger back. He always cheered me up. Over lunch, he’d try to trade food. Once, he stuck a finger in my cornbread and asked if I wanted to eat it.
“Aren’t you touchy?” He chortled, his mouth full of my cornbread.
I let it go. I needed Bruce’s friendship more than he needed mine. I was the younger brother of Joe Culley, a bully, twice my size, who had taken up the art of condescension. Compared to Bruce’s, my brother’s sense of humor consisted only of potshots and double crossings, inspired by Spy vs Spy. Joe defended himself. He wasn’t being cruel; he was only exhibiting his knack for competition. Joe loved competition because it established unarguable authority—but then there he was, my older brother, parading his authority through the house. Joe brought home perfect report cards, 4.0 averages. He gloated about being superior to me in every aspect, even over the two inches he maintained above me as Mom marked our heights up on the pantry door. There it was: Black spy—wins again!
Joe was also the senior book lover in the family. I think that by nine years old, he’d read more books than both of our parents combined. He wasn’t dumb, but mean. He enjoyed mysteries, fantasies, especially the sci-fi and horror genres. As a boy, he’d read the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie. Now he was reading Stephen King and Ian Fleming. It seemed he didn’t read these books for any virtuous reason, but only to deepen his twisted mind—to see what he could get away with. He wanted facts, science, information he could use or take advantage of. I didn’t want to be anything like him. I think it bruised his ego.
At home, Joe let it be known that I was the gullible one, the dummy. He called me know-nothing, nitwit, dork. He called me Birdbrain so often that I eventually flew into a fit, and the name stuck. Joe earned his nickname when he pinned me to the ground in the backyard and sat on my head like King Kong. He was trying to impress a friend from the football league who was standing right there, speechless. Mom and Dad couldn’t hear me calling for help. I started yelling, “You’re a butt! Nothing but a fat butt!” Afterward, every time he called me one name I called him the other.
“Don’t call me that!”
To me, it didn’t matter that he could read books. In my mind, he was just getting fat behind those stubby, gray paperbacks. I mean, books were for lazy people, obviously, and people who didn’t have better things to do. I wanted to do things. I loved sports, and action movies. I was not afraid of danger. I had messy hair that formed little wings over my ears, and a dusting of freckles on my cheeks. I was the kid who would always take a dare.
Joe said he liked this about me. In some way, he liked that about the authors he read. They were fearless, they did things. Still, I could not get past the idea of having someone else’s words stuck in my head where I couldn’t reach them, or change them, or determine what other words they might lead to. He said that was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard.
Once, Joe dared me to read. He brought me to the horror novels on his bookshelf. I grabbed one and flipped the pages. I grabbed another. “What’s the difference? They’re all the same. Every page is just like every other!”
We separated in disagreement.
On my own, when I tried to read, I found myself instantly exhausted, easily distracted, and constantly unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. Each word looked like a broken collection of figures that had once been orderly and carefully arranged—like coats that had once been hung up in a closet. When I looked down, the coats were in disarray. All of the letters had fallen out of the words and into a heap at the bottom of the page. Words were only a way of seeing the alphabet in ruins. How could I fit my whole life, beginning, middle, and end, through such a misshapen form as this?
If I opened a book, I didn’t see sentences, only parts of phrases, and assorted sounds; ropes, balls, trees. But with every word and line jammed up beside every other, who knew how this noise was all supposed to sound? When I read a name, even in one line of a story, I lost track of what they were doing in the next line—or on the next page. I followed clues in just about every direction but then found myself deafened, and staring. Reading didn’t get me anywhere, and it did not fulfill my need for stories.
The idea that reading opened the mind seemed totally backward to me; the opposite was more likely. Written words seemed to have the effect of framing the mind, narrowing options. They were only one step away from mind control—as I saw it—or brainwashing. Words were limits, boundaries. How could they lead to everything?
In Mrs. Wyndham’s class I kept my concerns to myself. I feared speaking up because I thought I might crack and then try to say whatever there was room to say. Why are there only so many letters in the alphabet, not fewer? Not more? Why do some words have only one letter? What is the real story of the alphabet? Why does f follow e, and n follow m, and u lead to w, as it clearly does? I thought, I can’t speak up about this. I’d only be told to stand outside and face the wall.
The next year, Bruce and I would no longer share the same classroom. Mrs. Pickard, my new teacher, found me to be a joyful and optimistic boy. In January, on the Stanford Achievement Tests for grade schools, I received above-average scores: 66 percent in listening, 94 percent in math computation. I was below average, earning only 48 percent, in reading comprehension. There was still every hope of my being able to learn how to read.
Why Feathers Give Me Headaches
Teachers say that literacy starts in the family. If that’s true, then I came from two families. There was the family that thought itself highly educated, fully functional, and yet this was the same family that thought it wasn’t up to them to teach me how to read. Unlike other children, I have no memory of my father or mother reading books. I don’t recall being read stories. I don’t have favorite characters or myths that I identified with at an early age. Seldom did anyone write to me, or expect to receive my thoughts in writing. It didn’t bother anyone that I couldn’t read.
There was, in our family, some importance given to documents. To my parents, written words were considered weightier than mere spoken expressions. Writing was reserved for serious business like school assignments, legal judgments, tickets, a license to practice, a schedule of classes. Promises, degrees, laws, these required keeping track of. Stories were hardly necessary. They were more like distractions from the events we screened on television.
Where it came to literacy itself, there was really no illiterate option. This is why, early on, I was not called by that name either. Mom believed there was always a name for a thing—you only had to know where to look. In her mind, the world had already been figured out and that’s why we had books. She didn’t expect me to take an interest in reading them. I was too easily distracted for academic pursuits. I couldn’t concentrate very well, she told me, and so my standards were set low. As long as I could tell whose name was on the label of a Christmas present, she was not alarmed.
Dad was also pretty frank. He said I shouldn’t be so dumb all the time, but then I couldn’t take him very seriously. He also said I had a birdchest, and he called me a number of other things that didn’t make sense. Anyway, these names, spoken in a humorless flourish, were only to be taken as endearments. Calling me names was a way of calling me his, without having to pat me on the back or touch me. I think in every picture of my early childhood, I am wearing my clothes wrong because he’d dress me in a haphazard way. My pants were pulled up too high, my hat was pulled down over my ears. This was because my father always had this fear of touching me. If he’d show me any affection, it was only to grant me my independence.
My father understood that literacy was important, but not on the same level as money or reputation. For him, literacy was only a symbol, like getting a politically sensitive joke. By now I should have gotten the joke. I didn’t.
For both parents, literacy was only an ambiguous notion. It meant something like having the ability to maintain equal leverage in a conversation, to follow logic, or to use a map to get to some place I’d never been. They could not have imagined how illiteracy could be an average or ordinary part of life. Having not thought through either question at much length, they might have agreed that literacy was natural, and that becoming literate was an inevitable development. They might have thought that someday illiteracy could be eliminated completely, even while they sat and watched television. Literacy was like regular life to them, theirs by sovereignty. They didn’t know what to do with me.
Travis Hugh Culley is the author of The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2006, he was a recipient of the Ox-Bow Fellowship in Saugatuck, Michigan.