Father's day

25th February 2005 at 00:00
ichael Cook is having a literacy crisis. Even the web can't help him.

I thought I'd found an answer online, but the Mysteries of Reading website was less helpful than I had hoped. (Although now I know that the 19th-century lion statue in Reading's Forbury Gardens is anatomically incorrect and, if it were a living creature, would inevitably topple over.

And that some signposts point to Reading's "city centre" when "the shopping capital of the Thames Valley" is officially just a town.) Anyway, the mystery: before they arrive in infants, my children can recognise their name, my name and some key words from their life: Batman, Balamory, Muller Crunch Corner. After just a year or so, they are gobbling up storybooks, information books, and - in Alfie's case - the sports section of the Observer. The leap from illiteracy to bookworm seems too much, too soon, too amazing.

And today I'm reminded exactly how amazing. I have to cut out some letters to label a display of African animals - a tissue-paper zebra I helped a group to finish sticking together, and a giraffe I had nothing to do with.

In the art cupboard, there is apparently a box of letter templates. But I can't find it. There's a tiny italic lower-case z; a huge wooden ampersand and a sans- serif vowel or two, but that's it. Unless I want to recreate the logo of some 1980s style mag, I'm out of luck.

However, I learnt to read and write myself once. Can it be so difficult to draw some letters of my own? Except, in this electronic, broadband world, I'm not entirely sure what an "f" looks like. I mean, I could spot one if I saw it in the street, but does an infant f have a tail? Curved or straight? Come to think of it, how tall is a "t"? Is an "o" round or oval? Should a little "a" be a circle with a stick, or one of those fancy ones with a handle? (And what's with the handle? Who wants to carry a lower-case "a" any distance?) This must be what it's like for the children: every letter looking strange and new; handling a pencil as tricky to them as cutting through sugar paper with tiny scissors is to me.

So, in the end, I'm pretty pleased with my lettering. Although I'm afraid the tissue-paper zebra is anatomically incorrect and, if it were a living creature, would surely topple over.

Michael Cook is a freelance copywriter and a parent helper at Ernehale infants school, Arnold, Nottingham, which his children, Alfie and Poppy, attend.

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