Monday, January 16, 2012

It’s Sink or Swim
Learning to read well is necessary to survive in our culture. Too many of our kids are drowning.

I have no dog to take out when I get up in the morning. So if I wake up real early before I can go to the corner for my paper and my coffee, I’ll read a book. This morning was like that. I wonderfully have two books going. I read a bit from both. One, a new novel; the other, a paperback biography of Walt Whitman. I live in the back of the building. There’s no noise at all.

It hits me some mornings how perfect it is to sit on the corner of the couch with a good lamp lighting up the pages. I can’t imagine a better place to be then. It hit me this morning how restless I would be if I couldn’t read well enough to be enjoying such times. I’d have to have the TV or radio going. I’d have to be checking my computer. I’d maybe try to go back to sleep. I thought, as I often do, about poor kids here and how they aren’t likely to ever feel what I feel then. I got mad at the schools again. The old swimming image came to mind. It frequently does when I think about the sinfulness of not teaching kids to read well.

Here’s why I think of swimming. I’ve written about it before. It works for me. What if we all lived right by the sea. What if fishing were the only means of survival, and everyone had to go out in boats and bring in a catch to feed themselves and their village. Certainly soon after kids learned to walk, they’d all be dipped in the water and taught to swim. They’d have to be. Water is where they’d have to spend their days. To not know how to swim would make them vulnerable to drowning. It would make them not equipped to go out on the boats in all sorts of weather to earn a livelihood. They’d be without the means.

They’d have to be strong swimmers. To survive. It would be the responsibility of the elders to teach them to swim well. The whole society would depend on that ability being passed down to the children. No one would question its necessity. No child would not be taught to swim well.

Let’s use that swimming image as a metaphor for reading in our culture. Are our kids all being taught to swim well? Are all our kids coming out of our training lessons knowing how to swim well enough to survive in any weather? In the 10 or 12 years that they have to go to the public pool for 6 or 7 hours a day, do they learn to swim easily, easily enough so we don’t have to worry about them drowning? Can they swim strongly, confidently? Or do they thrash and cough and choke trying to get to the end of the pool? Or can some of them do no more than a dead-man’s float? Or dog paddle?

Suburban kids who have their own pools or cottages or trips to Florida or the Jersey Shore can swim with ease. So can many city kids from the middle class. But the poor kids. How about them? Don’t they need to survive too?

Can you see the parallel? Can you see that if we don’t teach those poor kids to read well, they can’t really survive? How will they eat? How will they mix with the kids who can read? How will they help their village? How will they find some quiet, deep comfort in their early mornings when they’re awakened by things that go bump in the night like I am?

For some months I’ve stood with my sign on Chambers Street. I’m there for an hour in the morning. I see many now-familiar faces every day. Some people smile, give a nod, say Right On, or Ain’t That The Truth. Some ask what I’m all about. One girl, a student on her way to Stuyvesant High, early on asked me that. One day she handed me a poem she’d written for school. It’s about my sign:

Why not
school kid
to read

The stark sign challenges passersby with the question that is not, well,
a question – at least not
to him, the sign-bearer: a fervent, active reader,
and a retired teacher.
The font on the sign is large, each word basic enough for a kid,
at least a literate kid, the kind of kid every

kid should be, to read. Every
word is typed in bold on the imposing rectangular sign, well-
reinforced, like each of the ideas and claims the man, kid-
like in his dogged determination, makes. Not
unfazed by the questions or attacks from people who read
the message skeptically, he seizes every opportunity to advocate his position and teach.

Standing outside an official building each morning, he acknowledges the teachers
who work inside. Every
professional in the building knows who he is; everyone reads
the same nine words (six lines) before she continues her trek to the office. Well
she knows them, as well as any poem she memorized in childhood. Not
unreasonable; the innocent lines insert themselves in one’s brain, like images of kids

without the power to read. Kids,
generally poorer kids, without the possibility of escaping from apathetic teachers,
struggling parents, or unforgiving neighborhoods with a good book… not
surprising that this man, after a life devoted to every
aspect of proper English, reading it, teaching it, learning it, and writing it well
would take up the cause. Reading

the newsletters he’s published, printed, and handed out himself, reading
the story of his interesting life, the stories of the sad lives of the kids
impacted by the well-
tried and often-failing educational system, reading these teachings
and anecdotes of this ex-Midwesterner, I am angry because every
day he stands there, sending out his message, is another day the people with power will not

change the status quo. They teach not,
and don’t let those who can, teach, instead causing kids harm by cutting every
teacher’s incentive to teach well. They hope for successful kids but overlook the key: reading.

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