Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Book That Still Comes To Mind

And maybe we could use it to guide the schools.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the one. It’s the book that naturally comes to my mind when I’m asked on the sidewalk, when I‘m holding my sign, what are you trying to do? I don’t have a pat answer. I should, probably. Sometimes I’m agitated the rest of the day over a poor answer I’ve given. I get thrown off sometimes by questions that are too aggressive. When I’m thinking clearly, I say, among other things, that I want the kids, when they’re standing on the stage at graduation, if someone tossed any one of them To Kill a Mockingbird, to be able to read it as easily as you or I can. That’s the answer that says it for me. That’s what I’m trying to do.

In the fall of 1961 I’m at my desk in my room at a Catholic boarding school. I’m a freshman, a long way from home. I’m at my desk during mandatory study time, two and a half hours  each night after dinner, and I’m not studying. I’ve got the radio on real low and I’m straining to hear if Roger Maris is going to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.  There’s a lamp on my desk that lights the desktop up brightly. It’s a wide fluorescent lamp and it makes my radio all static-y, and I worry that I’ll get caught not studying by a sneaky-soled  Jesuit roaming the hall. Besides the stack of heavy  books I’m supposed to be studying (Latin was the big thing), I have a paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that we’re reading in English class.  Over 50 years later I can still see it on the upper right corner of that desk. It was the first real book I’d ever been assigned in school. This was not a story in an anthology. This was not a school library book. This was a book adults were reading. It was all the talk. I knew it was important. The title alone was curious and magical. To say the title to yourself today still feels magical, and beautiful, and sad.

If the school system had the same wish I did, that every school kid at graduation could read the book easily, then they’d have a real goal to shoot for, and it would order the way they do things. Now I don’t know what their goal is. That every child go to college? I cringe when I hear that. It’s impractical. It’s so general. And it reeks to me of elitism. Better they teach every kid to read well. And see where that goes. Festooning the classrooms and hallways with Stanford pennants is nonsense.

Freshman year was probably too early to have read Mockingbird. Even for me, who’d come to boarding school from a small town in Western New York where potato farms were a big part of the landscape. I’d seen many  migrant workers. I’d seen the shacks they were put up in. I’d stare out of the back seat of our big shiny car window as we’d drive by some of those shacks when we’d be on our way to the next town over to get dinner or a root beer float on a summer evening. I’d see black kids playing out in front of the shacks in the dust with dusty toys or a tire. I don’t know what I thought.

If not every graduate was able to read the book easily if it were tossed their way, then that would signal something was wrong with the schooling they’d gotten in 12 years. If it came to be apparent that 12 years of schooling weren’t enough for some kids to be able to read that book easily, then maybe it would underscore how important pre-school was to reading development. Or maybe it would show that the curriculum had to be re-thought.  However many years it might take, or however many changes had to be made, it would have to culminate in the kids being able to read that book easily. If it took Saturdays, well then, Saturdays would need to be included. That book would have to be able to be read easily on graduation day.

There are the equivalent of those migrant shacks here in the big city of course. Whole communities of them. We seldom go by them on our way to our root beer floats. But they’re here, in parts of town where we never go on our bicycles that we can rent now when we need them like they do in Europe. You can’t see the shacks from the High Line either. From our tall apartments, we want a river view. We don’t want to see shacks. This is maybe 60 years after I looked out the car window at the migrant shacks in my home town. I guess I can’t be too hard on my parents for not doing something about it, when even now there are worse shacks here.

I wonder if the book means that much to black people. Is it college-boy presumptuous of me to think that Mockingbird is significant to everyone just because it was to me and the other white people? Or does the very fact that we like it so, mean that it couldn’t possibly be the truth.  I wonder.

I don’t remember much from the classroom in the boarding school I went to for four years.
Oh, I remember what the teachers were like and I remember who I sat near. I remember the announcement junior year during French class that President Kennedy was killed. I remember how chilling and exhilarating it felt that night that Bethesda Naval Hospital was just up the road from our school. But I don’t remember much subject matter. Almost none at all. Do you? All I really learned was how to read better.

The paperback copy of Mockingbird on my desk that night that Maris was chasing Ruth was of huge significance. It, along with folk music, spoke to me more compellingly about social issues than did the priests or my parents. I never looked back. Certainly not to the priests. My late-parents are another, ever-evolving, matter.

Mockingbird is symbolic and important to me.  But to the kids who are in high school now, there’s maybe some other book that would be the one. Let that be it then. But let it be read easily and well by any kid on the stage, should he or she be asked. The schools have to see to it that that’s the norm. It’s the most important ability the students can take from high school.

Why not teach every school kid to read well.

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.

-Scout    Chapter 31

No comments:

Post a Comment