“Words” on a walk …

The early morning walk takes me down the Monon trail to town. It’s not a typical August day because the temperature is not too hot and the air is not humid heaviness. Armed with this unusual cool, clear air, I head to Main Street where there’s a new sidewalk sculpture. “One Man’s Search” sits in front of a frozen yogurt shop, reading a book and wearing a high school sweater with the local school’s logo. There are 14 “people” sculptures hanging out on key streets in the Arts and Design District.[1] My favorites are the dancer, the woman shopper carrying a bag of groceries, the man sitting on a park bench reading the news of the stock market, and the violinist serenading in front of the music store. These sculptures look so real you’re inclined to get up close enough to check out the actual words on the newspaper …

I’m remembering now the woman in a grocery store years ago. “Can you help me find the corn?” she asks. She’s been walking back and forth among the orderly shelves of beans, peas, carrots, and corn. So I don’t understand why she doesn’t see the cans of corn. Maybe she has bad eyesight, so I point to the cans. She sees me pointing but asks, “Which ones of these?” She’s pointing to plain-labeled white cans which are lower priced ones. I see now that there are multiple white cans with different vegetables in them, but no pictures of the contents on the labels. “I can’t read,” she explains, “I can only see the pictures, not the words.” Without pictures she doesn’t know which vegetables are in the cans. I select a plain-labeled can of corn for her and she thanks me.  C-o-r-n …she cannot read the word.

At a recent meeting with college professors focusing on what learning must be part of a college degree, some express concern that they’re dealing more and more with students arriving on campus with reading problems. These students are not illiterate. Many are highly “visually” literate. They manage computer activities of many types, easily de-code a variety of shorthand “acronyms” common in the Internet (texting) culture, and handle assignments to build video essays with aplomb. But many lack the same level of reading/writing of earlier generations of students. How should our teachers best work with students who so easily “text” and simplify (consolidate) language to letters that stand for words on their mobile phones but can’t process more complicated sentences and paragraphs? IARCAT! (I am really concerned about this!)  JMTAU (just made this acronym up).

I especially welcome then the new sculpture on Main Street depicting one man’s search through reading a book vs. texting on his mobile phone or playing a video game on his tablet.

My walk continues to the other end of Main Street ─to the public library. It will not be open until afternoon. To the right is the elementary school and a large sign post with the message in big red letters ─ school starts next week.

The playground is straight ahead. No one is there so it’s a good time to head for the swings, to get in a good swing. While I’m kicking my legs back and forth to get “airborne” and wondering what the weight limit is for kids’ swings, I notice a sign several feet away of “rules” for the nearby athletic field. Happily airborne now, I’m also seeing on the fences around the track nine large signs of business advertising. They’re all sports-related signs ─ colorful (red, blue, green) word phrases and logos. To the right are giant garbage bins with signs on them too ─ of the business that services them.

What a surprising amount of “literacy” – well, “words” and “signage” anyway in today’s walk. Maybe it was always this way but I never noticed so many words before.

If you ask me if I think there should be print ads stapled to the fences of our athletic fields, or if there should be signage on our garbage bins at the school grounds, I’d say no. We’re outside, we’re playing, we’re on the swing set, we’re walking on the track… please don’t put any “words” here, keep the environment natural.

But aren’t words natural?  Don’t words belong too in our play environments, trying to influence our shopping habits and instructing us in the rules of play?

Throughout today’s walk, I’ve been plugged into my iPod, listening to a variety of music. And I’m listening to both the music and lyrics. So in this aspect too, the words congeal with the music.

All these are reminders of how words are structured into so many of our settings. Usually the “wordage” of our environment is mindless. But words have emerged today in a new way ─ from the sculpture man’s book, the fences of the athletic field, the garbage bin ads, the rules of the playground, and the notices about the start of school – to the lyrics melded to the music of Leonard Cohen, Justin Timberlake, and John Prine.

As I head for home, I’m hoping that the woman from long ago in the grocery store learned to read, so she can find her products easily. And I resolve next time I’m in the grocery to see if there are pictures now on every can and box on the shelves. I’m betting there are, that the marketers know what our professors know ─that we depend more and more on visual literacy.

Final take-a ways from today’s walk: LTRWWP (learn to read words without pictures). And swing high …


[1] Carmel’s “people” sculptures are located in the Old Town Arts & Design District. Many of the statutes are created by J. Seward Johnson, the artist who did the giant Marilyn Monroe in Chicago and whose works have been exhibited around the world.