BORN TO RUN
and other reading pleasures kids need to be able to enjoy.
Why I haven’t written a cityReader in months I’m not sure. Inertia is always a big reason we don’t do things. I could leave it at that, and not say anything about uncertainty over what to write about, or money, or the self-criticism I too often subject myself to for not doing more for the poorest city kids.
I’ve continued to hold the sign that says WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL in front of the Department of Education for an hour every day. I don’t think I’ve ever blown that off other than for severe weather reasons, and even on those mornings, I feel guilty for not going. I’ve held the sign for five and a half years. It’s part of my life. I’ll be 70 in June. I feel lucky that I have something, beyond the personal, I care about so.
I’ve always liked the looks of schools. The Catholic grade school I went to in a town of 2,000 people in the western part of the state was right across the street from my house. I liked the way the windows looked on cold early mornings with warm yellow light filling them. The school at that hour stood out from the trees and the dark telephone poles and the wooden houses around it.
We’d go down the hall to the little school library once a week. We were supposed to be quiet as we walked by the other classrooms. If we were quiet, all you’d hear would be the nun’s hard heels hitting the hall’s buffed floor and the rustling of the big black rosary beads that hung from her waist.
You had to get a book. I don’t remember the early books I picked, but as I got to be 10 years old, I’d take out the same sports book almost every week. It was a regular-size hardback book like an adult book which made it appealing to me even if the pages weren’t as dense with type as grown-up books were. I liked that it was well-worn. To this day I like the looseness of a library book.
I wrote this as a blog entry last month:
Some young women, sometimes young men pass by the sign and me, with strollers to take their younger kid or kids along, while they drop off their older child at the pre-school on the block where I hold the sign. One mother stopped in front of me one day and with a British accent that made me throw my shoulders back asked about the sign. I told her that the sentence on the sign came to me on my couch one afternoon and I felt it was my duty to pass that message on. She nodded and immediately mentioned Black city kids. She recognized, she said, after just being in the states for six months, that the achievement gap was a pressing issue, and rightly assumed that my sign was mostly aimed at that ever-present disparity.
She said she’d recently seen some short documentary film on TV showing the differences in the facilities between a middle class white school and a poor Black school. It was startling news to her. I said, I hope not too cynically, that such reports were things we’ve been seeing and reading about for decades here. I told her that’s why I hold the sign, hoping that its message might penetrate the system and make the system put reading at the very center of everything. It would give direction to the whole enterprise. Whatever was needed to make certain that every kid was taught to read well should be implemented. The schools which now seem underclass would have to be brought up to high standards to get the job done. The school system could not wait until society’s inequalities were brought into balance to make the transformation to a reading-well-before-all-else curriculum. In fact, I said, equality will not happen until this reading success is achieved. Which is what I believe most of all. Which is why I’m there every day.
I couldn’t tell you five important things I learned in grade school. Oh, I could still diagram a sentence the way the nuns showed us on the blackboard. Sometimes when they’d be at the board doing a diagram the chalk would get on the huge black sleeve of their habit. I could still do long division. I can recall a few photos from the social studies book. Not much else. But I could probably still name the athletes in that library book I took out every week. It was a book called Champions in Sports and Spirit. It had separate chapters about Catholics who had made it big time in sports. That seems so parochial now. But then it was exciting for me to read about Bob Cousy the basketball star and Maurice Richard the great hockey player and the boxer Carmen Basilio and others I could name.
I looked forward to going to the library. I liked the way the books looked. All the different sizes and colors. Some had good pictures on the dust jackets. Some had no dust jackets. I wonder if all the city kids go every week to their school library. Do they have a favorite book?
Do the teachers have a favorite book? Is reading books a passion for the teachers?
I’d get English majors to teach here. They like to read. They’d like to deal with kids and books. And reading and writing. They’d like to live in the city. They like art and plays and bookstores and museums and galleries. They’d like Brooklyn. Why not recruit them to teach here? Reading is what you want the kids to learn and like. I got all A’s in school and I can’t remember five things. I remember that book though. Reading is everything. English majors would know that in their bones. That’s what you want.
For Christmas my middle daughter who lives in Brooklyn got me the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born To Run. It’s a big deal. It’s #3 on the Times list of best-selling books. But I’m not sure I’d have bought it. I have so many books stacked all over the apartment. I have so many books I haven’t read. Bruce I didn’t have to have in the way I had to have other books. But my daughter has good book instincts. I started it almost a week ago. I’m at page 300. As I get older I read slower because I think about things in a more reflective way than I did when I was young and born to run.
Bruce is a reader. He wrote a good book. I’m lucky to be reading it. Schools have to give every kid the chance to feel lucky that way. There’s nothing like it.