Which part of a bus is the most important? The engine? The driver? Wheels, brakes, fog lights? The passengers? No. It’s the Literacy Alcove. The Literacy Alcove is usually towards the center, or at the front on the left. It normally has fold-down seats, is often filled with push chairs, babies, toddlers and their mums. The buggy-baby-toddler-mum area. Where wheelchair users go too.
I propose that it’s here where a nation’s future is forged; where economic success is made or broken and where personal fulfillment begins.
Bold claims for a bit of a bus. Let me explain why:
I travel a lot. I choose public transport when I can, walk if it’s sunny and fly if I have to. I use buses a great deal. I see what goes on in the Literacy Alcove. Things like this: a mum and her baby boy get on. The baby is about 11 months old and strapped in a pushchair. He is big-eyed and alert. This is a bus for goodness sake; what’s not to get excited about. He’s looking around making eye contact with passengers, taking in the sounds, the colours, shapes, smells; seeking out something to connect with, something to learn, to do, to grasp. His brain must be crackling with electricity. He is full on ready to learn.
Mum parks the buggy so she can see him. She smiles, he smiles back. I’m anticipating a beautiful moment filled with the to and fro of a proto-conversation. Then mum takes out her phone, turns away and spends the rest of the journey on Facebook. Baby looks around for a while then zones out.
Sometimes you don’t see the first bit. The part where the buggy and its child get to face the mum. Once in a while the baby gets the phone and the mum pulls out another, bigger one. If you’re lucky (like I was this morning) nan gets on. She has her grandson for the day and there are no phones. I saw nan entertain baby for 20 minutes with a single bus ticket. She gave it to him and he scrunched it up, she straightened it out, then he examined it, licked it, flapped it, dropped it and waggled it. Then nan rolled it into a ball and played guess where it is. All the while talking to him and asking questions. Inspiring use of the Literacy Alcove.
More inspiring would be a bus company (First Bus, Arriva, whoever) that put poems and rhymes and songs there – instead of serious lists of imperatives about buggies, wheelchairs and travel-based behavioral priorities. There could be books on strings, jolly cartoon characters talking and reading, big magnetic letters, textures, bells. A giant sensory alcove. Anything! Anything to get mums talking to their children. Lists of questions. Jokes. Funny pictures. Half finished sentences. Just something to start a conversation.
Some kids aren’t born with a silver spoon. Or any cutlery for that matter. They are poor in experience, opportunity and outlook (but not potential). They start school very much behind and many never catch up. One cause is scarcity of language in their first years. Some children start school with a 3000-story deficit and even the most effective teachers struggle to compensate.
We can fix this in the Literacy Alcove. Imagine a 20 minute journey taken 5 times a week for 40 weeks of the year. If mum speaks to baby for half that time at 100 words per minute, that’s 200,000 extra words a year. 600,000 more before they go to school. And that’s just in the bus.
First Bus, Arriva: free rides for mums who have a conversation with their child. The driver can check in her mirror. A fiver every time they sing a song to their baby. Vouchers for asking questions, pointing out interesting things. Rewards for language.
We can do the sums but I guarantee the cost of not doing this is more than fitting out every bus with a couple of posters and a book on a string.