Sunday, June 21, 2015

The last test, the one at graduation, is the one that counts.

Another school year ends. And this goes through your mind:

At the graduation gatherings in auditoriums where 18-year-old kids from the city’s public schools are getting diplomas, you wonder, could the principal of any of those schools hand the biography of Michelle Obama randomly to any one of those kids on any of those stages and be confident that they could read it as well as you or I could at 18? They should be able to.

The kids on those stages have been in the city’s schools since they were six.

I went to Harlem one evening two months ago to hear the author of the book sit down for a conversation with the head of the Schomburg Center where you ought to go sometime. They talked on stage in the auditorium and now and then behind them there would be a blown-up photo projected against the wall of Michelle Obama at different times in her life. You smiled at her determined face all along the way from early Chicago to White House DC. Your eyes almost watered over it all, it’s a good story. Older women in the crowd slowly nodded their heads as they looked at younger Michelle.  You thought to yourself as you sat there, with the stage five rows in front of you, about that graduation scenario. And you got mad at all the people, yourself and your culture and your easy background included, who conspired to make it so that not every graduate could read that book well, and so would not, on their own, likely read it at all.

It’s likely not a great biography. No one has said it is. But it’s one of those books that when you’re 18, if you’re drawn to it for whatever reason, can keep a dream going, or get one started. It’s a person to identify with. It’s a way of learning history, too. Most importantly, it’s a book. Your week, your month, your life is better when you’ve got a book going. God damn us all for not allowing that to be the way life will be for all those kids who are graduating this month in New York City.  They’re almost adults, with nothing but TV and music to help them solve things.

On the way up to Harlem that night on the #3 train at rush hour, I was reading one of J.D. Salinger’s famous paperbacks again, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction. A pretentious title to a book, or so it certainly seemed to me that evening, that couldn’t be whiter, to be reading on that train going to the Schomburg. But that’s the book that I had going that week. And the stimulation of it had my mind working in a way that made me make good on the opportunity to go hear two guys talk about the first lady’s book in a different part of town. 

Books, even unlikely ones, stimulate you that way. TV makes you want something to eat.

You’d think New York would do better for its school kids. You’d think the New York Times would beat the issue of city kids and reading almost to death. You’d think The New Yorker would devote a double issue to it at least once a year. Do you even know who the education writers are at either publication? Or the education reporter at NY1? I’ll bet you know who the movie critics are. The restaurant reviewers. In a city that has Random House, and Scholastic Books, Columbia University, Strand Bookstore, lions in front of its big library, WNYC, WNET, the 92nd Street Y where two of my grandchildren take swimming lessons, Conde’ Nast, museums, galleries. Walt Whitman lived here. You’d think the city would be very vigilant over literacy. Is this big cultured city a little too distracted and way too gaga over the High Line, and things like that? Is it so pleased with itself that it doesn’t want to really attend to the messy things? Like its poor kids, for instance.

I hold a sign every day for an hour downtown on Chambers Street in front of the big once-it-was-a-courthouse building where the Department of Education has its offices. I’m not a sign-holder by nature. I’m not a salesman, to a fault. But the words of this sign came to me, like you hear things come to people, one day four years ago (WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL.), and like the words came, so did the instinct (command?) to run up the street to Kinko’s that very hour and get a sign made. With a period, not a question mark. The next morning I went down to Chambers Street and held the sign.

A few weeks ago, a cool-looking black guy, maybe 40, was gliding down the sidewalk toward the sign and me on Chambers Street. It wasn’t crowded just then and he angled my way and, just as he was going by, smiled in a knowing way, and said, admiringly of the sign’s message, but cynically, as he looked up at the big Dept. of Ed building, ‘You think they gonna’ do that?’

You’d think people who see me, a 68-year-old guy, every day with the sign would think it’s crazy. But I don’t think they do.

"One night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny, was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ-free room I shared with my eldest brother, Seymour. I was fifteen, Seymour was seventeen. Along about two in the morning, the new roommate's crying wakened me. I lay in a still, neutral position for a few minutes listening to the racket, till I heard, or felt, Seymour stir in the bed next to mine. In those days, we kept a flashlight on the night table between us, for emergencies that, as far as I remember, never arose. Seymour turned it on and got out of bed. 'The bottle's on the stove, Mother said,' I told him. 'She isn't hungry.' He went over in the dark to the bookcase and beamed the flashlight slowly back and forth along the stacks. I sat up in bed. 'What are you going to do?' I said. 'I thought maybe I'd read something to her,' Seymour said, and took down a book. 'She's ten months old, for God's sake,' I said. 'I know,' Seymour said. 'They have ears. They can hear.'

-from Seymour an Introduction


  1. Excellent points. How about submitting an Op Ed piece to the Times?

  2. I'd like to second that motion. Also, I really like this: "Books, even unlikely ones, stimulate you... TV makes you want something to eat."