Monday, July 30, 2012

A Year On The Street

Standing with my sign every morning was an engaging education.

Here are four quotes I used in an article I wrote in 1996 for a magazine I edited in Cleveland. I came upon them yesterday when I was rearranging things that were sliding off a shelf in my wonderful-to-me, book-strewn apartment :

I can think of no more important endeavor than reading. To be a little dramatic, it’s saved my life in many ways. I’ve been pursuing it now for a long time. Heavily I’d say for the past ten years. I began very late…If I had one wish for my children, it would be that they become readers.
-Harvey Keitel in Esquire

No matter how high the quality of programming, an excess of passive reception stunts a child’s oral development and prepares him or her to be frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary rules of standard English…Frustration turns to resentment: kids drop out of school and, in the worst case, join violent gangs of ‘post-illiterates.’
-Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker

To me, nothing can be more important than giving children books. It’s better to be giving children books than drug treatment to them when they’re 15 years old. Did it ever occur to anyone that if you put nice libraries in public schools you wouldn’t have to put them in prisons? If people don’t read, you have the kind of culture, and I use the word very loosely, that we have now. I think television turned out to be exactly as bad as the most irritating and pedantic intellectuals of the ‘50s said it was going to be.
-Fran Lebowitz in The New York Times

People who don’t read are brutes
-Playwright Eugene Ionesco

They of course still apply today. More maybe. They’re the types of observations that eventually got me to start this newsletter/blog two and a half years ago, and got me to go to Kinko’s and get my sign made. And got me to go downtown and stand with it in front of the Department of Education for an hour in the morning. Most mornings anyway. I’ve been there a year now. Here’s what I’ve seen:

Things change. Kids who passed me on their way to a sixth-grade (it was its first year) charter school grew remarkably. Little kids weren’t little anymore by year’s end. The parents or grandparents who walked with some of them the first months, backed off, and the kids came by themselves or in small groups. Some did nothing but holler and squeal and irritate adults on the sidewalk. You hoped they were somehow going to learn to read well. They need to. Some knew it. I could tell by the way even the noisiest respected what the sign said. They could tell the sign loved them, even as they some days nearly bumped me off the sidewalk.

Jobs, addresses, and relationships change too. Some people who used to walk by almost every day don’t anymore.

Attitudes change. Some people who wouldn’t look at my sign for weeks began to accept what it must mean; now many of them smile or say good morning every time they go by.

Some people, quiet, reader-types, who may have never given a thumbs up to anything, give a thumbs up to the sign. A few cars honk their horns and roll down their windows so I can see their faces and their thumbs up. Some honk every time they pass. My eyes water a little bit over the reaction some days. I’ll think maybe some kid or parent will be encouraged or inspired by the sign’s message. Even if the school system won’t be.

I give a copy of the newsletter to some of the passers-by. I keep a few of them in a canvas brief case I set across the sidewalk. I don’t give everybody one. I don’t want to impose. Many people have too much in their hands. Coffee, a purse, the morning paper, iPhones. A few have a cigarette going.

Quite a few people have taken a picture of the sign. Some say they’ll put it on Facebook. I like it when they say that. Despite my standing in public with the sign, I’m not at all a natural at promotion. I’m really not, to a fault probably. But I don’t want to look like I’m running for something or selling myself. I’m 65 now. I’ve seen way too many self-promoters. I think the sign will be its own agent. I really believe that. The idea for it came in a kind of inspiration. The words formed themselves. I didn’t question it. I went to get the sign made immediately, very uncharacteristically for me who can often deliberate over something till it loses its steam (case in point: I’ve been single for 35 years).

I will give the sign all the time it needs. I will stand there with it another year. I like standing there. I like seeing what I see. Maybe some day I’ll start taking photos of what I see with the small camera that’s always in my pocket. I see great faces.

Sometimes a face stops and talks to me about the sign. At first they wondered what the deal was. What was I about. I always look down and refer to the sign. Then I say some variation on the same theme. I say that in the ten or twelve years that the schools have the kids, they should make sure the kids learn how to read well. I say that the excuses of background are tired. I say the schools exist in every neighborhood and each kid has a desk and each room has teacher. I say that if their early upbringing may have not allowed for enough reading reps to make for an ideal preparation for school work, the kids must be given a chance in school to get all the reps they need. I say that the curriculum must be fashioned to give priority to that need for reps. Ten or twelve years of that should get the job done. It has to. If it takes Saturdays and Sundays and summertime too. Whatever it takes to get in the reps.

What I don’t say, but what I believe to the core of me, is that the teachers have to be readers too. Go out and get English majors to teach kids about books and reading. People who love books. Love is what you need. Love is what they missed when they missed being read to when they were small. I saw it in their faces this past year when they walked by my sign.


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