Thursday, June 28, 2012

School Is Out for Summer

I wrote this piece a year ago as school was getting out. Its theme still applies. I didn't change anything, including my age.

Here are some recent things that keep me thinking about this obsession of mine with the poor kids in the public schools in this city and how they’re being sinfully short-changed when it comes to reading, how they’re being allowed to graduate from local high schools without really knowing how to read. Every day I notice something that makes me think about this.

Usually I see an article in the paper or hear something on public radio, or something I see on the street brings it to mind. What I see in the paper or hear on the radio is almost never about reading, of course; it’s usually about teachers or charter schools or budgets or buildings. But that lack of media attention to my obsession grabs me too.

Last week I went out of town, and thought about it even there. I’m obsessed, like I said; so it goes wherever I go.

And where I went to was New Canaan, Connecticut for a college roommate’s kid’s high school graduation. That’s a world-and-a-half away from the schools and kids I’m usually thinking about. It’s a movie-set of Range Rovers and skis in the garage. Leafy, rolling streets and million dollar homes. A wooden train station where commuters leave for Manhattan. I looked at the high school yearbook supplement in my friend’s living room. It told where the 300-and-some seniors would be going to college next year. Exeter’s seniors couldn’t be going to better schools. And this was a public school list I was looking at.

Here some numbers came out this month from the State Education Department that showed that only 21% of the city’s high school graduates were prepared to do college-level work. 21%. Hell, some major league pitchers hit that well. That’s beneath unacceptable. That’s a sin is what it is. And it’s the poor kids who bring the average down. Black and Hispanic kids. They’re the ones who are getting left behind, getting lost. I’m sure you’ve noticed. You’ve noticed it for years. Then why is the discussion always about almost everything but them and how they can’t read well enough to go to even the CUNY colleges without taking remedial courses? Why is the discussion dominated by worries about teachers and charters and buildings? Why isn’t it dominated by talk of why another year has passed and another class of kids has not learned to read well enough to make something stimulating of their lives? Isn’t that what the teachers and the charters and the buildings are there for?

The kids in New Canaan can probably ski and they likely have an iPad at home. They’ve been to Beaver Creek and St. Croix. And the mailbox at the end of the driveway groans with glossy catalogs six days a week. In some essential way this stems from the adults in their house or in some ancestral house having learned how to read well. You can’t get there any other way. And by reading I don’t necessarily mean that the whole town now, or all the great-grandparents then, read the best literature. That’s just one kind of reading. Law books require a great reading facility too. So do medical books, and books on economics. The Times, the Wall Street Journal. That’s reading too. It comes with the territory, and a territory like New Canaan doesn’t come without it.

This morning I grabbed a collection of Hemingway’s short stories off the beyond-cluttered table in front of my couch and started reading ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ for maybe the 20th time in my life. I’ve read it more than I’ve read any other piece of writing. The first paragraph of course sets the scene, and as I read it, I thought how wonderful it was to be able to read, and how sad it was that some people in this city would not be able to read it and enjoy it. Here’s the first paragraph:

It was late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man
who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the
electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at
night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit
late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he
felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that
the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good
client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave
without paying, so they kept watch on him.

I don’t show that to imply that if only the kids could read that they’d be on their way. They wouldn’t care a bit for it maybe. But there are wonderfully-written things for their age that they could be enjoying. Think how empty and restless your life would be if you couldn’t read well. Don’t we owe it to all our kids to give them a chance to be more than empty, more than restless.

I turned 64 in June. I have four grandchildren, a fifth due to show up next month. Their mothers, two of my daughters, and their fathers read to them three or four books a day. Every day. (Which is more than reading-obsessed me did when my three kids were little. I’ll excuse myself, by saying I was very young.) One granddaughter who lives way out west was two a few weeks ago. I sent books. An iPhone photo of her and her presents showed that others sent her books too. That’s great. Even if she never reads that Hemingway story, she’s likely to grow up to be a good reader.

The poorer-than-my-grandchildren city public school kids almost surely don’t have the number of books my granddaughter has. And you hear that used as an excuse for why the schools can’t seem to get their reading scores up to par. Are they saying these kids are destined by fate to not be capable readers? Can that be? The schools are making excuses? In 10 or 12 years they can’t teach a kid to read? Well then I’m glad they don’t run AA or Weight Watchers or camps for overweight kids. It’s very cynical to run a system in which only 21% of the graduates are college-ready and then to be resistant to any kind of structural change to that system. Come on. If Derek Jeter were hitting .210, he’d be on the bench.

I’m surprised New York City isn’t outraged. But it isn’t. In the casual listening I do to local radio, there’s more talk about how we’re falling behind other nation’s schools in science. Huh? I say to myself,You think those kids who can barely read have a chance to be scientists? You think the schools should teach those kids more science, not more reading?

21%. That’s a crazy, sad number. You wouldn’t think New York City would accept that of itself, would you.

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