Monday, November 15, 2010


Will the Mayor’s fashionable new choice for Schools Chancellor, Cathleen Black, put reading back in style?

I didn’t like Joel Klein. I saw him at school board meetings. He was less than just a suit. He sat there playing with his Blackberry. The whole time. Looking up occasionally, dyspeptically. You wished for C-Span cameras, to catch him at it. If he was a big-deal lawyer in his former life, you wondered how. He was dismissive of parents and activists who tried to hold his attention in their paltry two-minute chance at the microphone. He acted (‘acted’ is almost too strong a word for what he did) tired, disinterested. I wanted to stand up and point out his glaring, insufferable lack of interest. But I’m sure everyone in the audience had already noticed.
Most of the audience were minorities. Parents of kids whose education, whose future, he controlled. You’d think he could rise to the occasion once a month to seem empathetic, show some interest. Nope. If the city’s media ever commented on his pathological lack of charisma, I never saw it. He was too close to the idealized paradigm of what New York holds dear: high SATs, Ivy League, kids in private schools, knew the Clintons, worked in Washington. Now he’s going off to work with Rupert Murdoch. In the reign of what-party Bloomberg, that’s no real surprise. It’s no bigger a move than changing your August vacation plans from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket. I’m glad he’s going.

I’m not sure what he accomplished. Are you? If there were some changes made, other cities made them too. Likely before New York did. No Smoking and bike paths and mayoral control of the schools weren’t invented here.

Now the Mayor wants Cathleen Black to take over. I’m not surprised by the choice. She stylish. The Mayor likes all that. She’s sorta’ Democrat, sorta’ Republican. Kids in boarding schools. Rich enough to own homes on the Vineyard and Nantucket. That’s right in Michael Bloomberg’s wheelhouse.

She has no experience in education. The predictable critics are grousing about that. As if all the former chancellors with doctorates in education had done jack for the poor kids here, or anywhere else. I like the choice. She’s full of life. She looks, and certainly is, able. That to me is most important. An able person can succeed in just about anything. She’s 66, so she’s seen a lot. She has kids of her own. She’s hired many young people at all her magazines. She appears, especially after dull-lawyer Klein, to have charisma. And her professional success has been in publishing, so she must respect the written word. If you’d rather have some PhD who’s still reading John Dewey at bedtime, you maybe haven’t noticed that we’re in crisis here.
Way too many kids who have gone through the public schools in this country’s most sophisticated city don’t know how to read to save their lives. They are being shortchanged year after year. Don’t show me statistics like Klein showed us statistics. The schools have sucked for a long time. And he left them sucking still.

Maybe Cathleen Black will make them better. She’s not a lawyer or an ambitious professional bureaucrat, used to sober briefs and boring documents. Her life has been spent turning blank pages into artful rectangles of style and order and stimulation. Just what schools should be. Does that sound crazy? That someone from a fashion mag world might have just the right aesthetic sense to make something out of the disorder of our public schools? Doesn’t sound crazy to me. Her eye for detail, her years of experience in putting out great products month after month, year after year, in a hotly competitive market should not be discounted. Between the glossy photo pages, she’s showcased writers and issues worthy of Leonard Lopate’s NPR show.

I welcome her enthusiastically. I hope she gets the OK.

Here’s what I’d tell her. Be radical. You’ve got just one shot at this. Don’t try to please the media or the boyish Secretary of Education. Don’t cater to the folks leading the charter school juggernaut. Or the unions. We’re in crisis.

This might be a guide: You know how Henry Ford paid his workers enough so that they’d be able to buy the cars they built. Well, maybe you could use that same notion, and set as your goal, making sure that the kids who reach high school in the city’s public schools can read well enough to read the magazines that you put out all those years at Hearst. That would be wonderful , wouldn’t it? I don’t mean from a marketing standpoint. You don’t have to worry about that anymore. But wouldn’t it be great to have the kids reading at a level where they could pick up any of those magazines and read through them like your two kids I’m sure can? That could be your curriculum guide. What better measure of your success?

Use that. Whatever measuring stick the system is using now must be a strange one. Do they think the kids have achieved it? Whatever it is. They can’t believe it. But they haven’t come up with anything that even remotely gets the job done.

And don’t do this: Don’t talk, like President Obama does, about every kid going to college. Nonsense. That’s like telling every fat kid they’re going to run the Boston Marathon. Let’s teach them to read first. Read well. If they can do that, college will take care of itself.
I’ve used this imagined scenario before. I’ve used it many time actually to explain my frustration with the failure of the schools here to do what, to me, seems doable. OK, imagine your oldest child is home from boarding school over the summer. He or she hasn’t got a summer job. The retired guy down the street who knows your son or daughter well, knowing that they aren’t working, asks if maybe they’d like to make some spending money. He suggests maybe they’d like to help his six-year-old granddaughter, who’s spending the summer with him, learn to read. Your kid thinks about and, not knowing how to say no to the old guy, says, Sure, I’d do that. And then asks the neighbor, How long do I get to accomplish the goal? He says, 12 years. Your kid wants to slap his forehead and laugh, and say, Who couldn’t do that? Well, apparently the New York City school system can’t. In 12 years, they can’t seem to teach most of the kids to read. Really read, well enough to read your magazines.

I hope you get the job. And that you do it as well as you’ve done your work in the shiny magazine world. The kids here deserve to shine. All of ‘em.

Bob Dylan Through Good Ears

Greil Marcus’s 40 years of listening

I took this book on a trip with me a few weeks ago. I’d finished the novel I’d been reading just before I went. This was all I had to get me through. As it turned out, it was all I needed. We’ve all read Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone. But I’d forgotten how good he writes. Forty years of stuff is here. Great stuff. Personal and subjective enough to feel honest. And true. You can’t ask for more. Demanding too. He might have a love affair with Dylan’s genius. But he’s tough and dismissive when he thinks Dylan’s standards are lowered.
You can hear the music. You can recall the era. You promise yourself you’ll listen to every Dylan CD you have in chronological order when you get home. You’ll watch ‘No Direction Home’ again.
You find yourself thinking of driving your car in 1965, smoking another cigarette, hoping the radio will play the long version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’
A Self-Portrait in Letters

Saul Bellow reveals himself in 70 years of correspondence.

Here’s the quote I have on my Facebook page: ‘If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.’ It the first line in my favorite book, Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog. He’s my favorite writer. His is the brightest mind. Viking just published his letters. 558 pages of them. I just bought the book. I wish I had a long train trip ahead of me.
Here’s what Philip Roth says on the dust jacket: ‘It comes as no surprise that the great novelist was a great correspondent as well. I hungrily read the book through in three nights. As though I’d stumbled upon a lost Bellow masterpiece only recently unearthed.’
If you haven’t read Saul Bellow, you almost haven’t lived.

The bookcase nearest my bed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Waiting for Superwoman?

Stop waiting. She’s already here. For years, teacher, author, ‘a cityReader’ contributor, Mary Leonhardt, has been making the case for the ultimate importance of reading. Here she is again.

Three years ago the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published a follow-up study, titled To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, to their 2004 study titled Reading at Risk. According to NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia: “new NEA study is the first to bring together reliable, nationally representative data, including everything the federal government knows about reading. This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement."

Among their more depressing findings: Reading scores for 12 graders “fell significantly” from 1992 to 2005. Out of 31 industrial nations, our 15 year olds rank only fifteenth, behind such countries as Poland and Korea.

How can this be? Between 2004 and 2007 money was poured into education. States were busy perfecting their assessment tests. The charter school movement flourished. Parents were made an important part of most school achievement plans. And yet . . . and yet . . .

Reading scores, according to the NEA's research, continued to plummet.

I don't think there is any mystery here. From my vantage point, in high school English classrooms across the country, from 1971 until 2008, I watched it happen.

What did I see? I saw a larger and larger number of student who, simply, rarely read. In the 1970s we worried about television pulling kids away from books. But few houses had more than one television then, and no one had cable, or DVD players, or iPods, or video games, or cell phones, or netbooks, or iPads. A paperback was still the easiest portable entertainment to carry around.

I remember, growing up in the 1950's, trading comic books and Nancy Drew books. That was our entertainment. Television was very new, and the one or two channels we could get rarely had anything on we were interested in. But a new Nancy Drew book? I would have sold my little sisters for one.

Fast forward to today. According to ‘USA Today’, in an article in their September 21, 2006 issue, the average American home now has more television sets than people. When you add in all of the other digital entertainment available to kids, is it any surprise that reading scores are plummeting?

This isn't a little matter. The NEA study documents how low reading scores have a global effect in our country―not just on reading scores, but on total educational achievement as well as participation in civic and professional life.

Is there any way to turn this around? Should we just throw up our hands? I don't think we need to, but I believe there needs to be a sea change in how we think about reading.

First of all, reading isn't just another skill kids need to be taught, along with science and math and history and health―a skill that kids learn by being taught phonics and then carefully, and tediously, pulled through reading material that the school has approved.

That's how it's been done for over a hundred years, but it didn't use to matter much, because so many children use to have rich, independent reading lives of their own. But today, that is becoming rarer and rarer. Another finding of the NEA report was that, on average, young people ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching television, but only seven minutes doing reading for pleasure

The education establishment needs to understand that until kids are turned into enthusiastic, avid readers, any educational gains will be minimal. Kids used to come to school as avid readers; now they don't. Schools need to pick up the slack, and take responsibility for turning kids into avid readers.

How can schools do this? This is the elementary school I would love to see.

The school entrance way wouldn't just have posters and announcements and signs pointing the way to the office. There would be bookcases loaded with reading material children can easily love: picture books, series books, comics, magazines―whatever children in that school love to read. Some comfortable chairs scattered around would be a nice touch as well.

Once in the main office, a visitor would see more kid-friendly reading material―on the tables, on the counters, wherever a child can reach. The school secretary would have a paperback or magazine on her desk, for reading when she has a spare minute. The principal should have plenty of reading material in his office, both for him and for any visitors to pick up.

There would be reading material scattered through the hallways―on tables, in little bookcases. Wherever there is room.

The classrooms would, of course, be loaded with reading material, as would the nurse's office, the cafeteria, the guidance office, and especially the school buses.

This is all too expensive, you say? And you couldn't possibly keep track of all these books and magazines. Wouldn't kids just walk off with them?

More expensive books could be in the school library―hardcover books, research material, expensive new fiction. The reading material scattered around the school could be bought on eBay or coaxed from parents, or funded with donations. Or perhaps the school could do with fewer computers or televisions. Imagine all of the Harry Potter books you could buy for the price of one computer.

Once the school has a rich collection of reading material everywhere, teachers should be told that at least three hours out of every school day need to be given to the children for silent reading of books of their own choice. And teachers, and the rest of the school staff, also need to be told that students must see them reading―nor for the whole three hours, perhaps, but for a good part of the school day.

I'm guessing that the response of most teachers would be twofold: one, that children would never sit still that long to just read and, two, that they have much too much other material they have to cover.

I have found with children that, if everyone else is reading, they will usually at least look quietly at reading material, if the material is interesting enough. Teachers should be told to use whatever material works. Comic books, joke books, ‘Sports Illustrated for Kids’, ‘Captain Underpants’ books . . . whatever it takes. And the reading time could initially be broken into half hour segments. As the kids become more interested in reading, and start finding books they enjoy, teachers will be surprised to find them begging for more quiet reading time.

Between quiet reading times, teachers can teach other subjects. But the exciting part of this is that a teacher will find, if she has lots of historical fiction around, and children's books about science and nature, that kids will pick these up during their free reading time, and eventually have a much more in-depth understanding of many disciplines. There is no better teacher than a book.

For this to work, however, educators have to give up a number of cherished beliefs. One is that kids shouldn't read “trashy” books. For my money, that is equivalent to saying that someone should die of thirst if they have to drink tap water rather than Poland Springs. Get kids reading first; you can introduce them to more complex literature later.

The other deeply ingrained belief in our culture is that just sitting around reading is somehow a waste of time. Kids should go to school to study and work hard. How can spending three hours a day reading ‘Goosebump’ books be a worthwhile use of time?

And maybe that points up the worst problem of all. We give lip service to the value of being a good reader, but are uneasy about having children who want to spend an entire afternoon curled up in their room with their collection of ‘Road and Track’ magazines. We're happier if they are playing soccer, or answering comprehension questions on boring, assigned school reading. Teachers think they need to be up in the front of the room all the time, teaching. What will their principal think if they are spending hours a day just presiding over students reading? Shouldn't they have the kids . . . memorizing vocabulary . . .or outlining chapters . . . anything other than just hunkered down over a Harry Potter book?

No. No more than good soccer coaches should have their players spend most of their time watching soccer videos or listening to lectures about how to play soccer. Good players need to play. Good readers need to read. Practice isn't everything, but it's close. And practicing an activity you love almost guarantees you will become pretty good at it.

You want reading scores to go up? Make sure our young people are spending two or three hours a day reading material they love. Then you can start talking about charter schools, and uniforms, and new math programs, and merit pay for teachers, and all of the other reform-of-the-day proposals.

First we have to get serious about reading.

‘a cityreader’ Turns One

Our desire to get the schools here to teach kids to read well is stronger than when we started

This ‘acityReader’ you’re looking at is #12.
That makes it a year since we started. Each issue and the accompanying blog ( been solely devoted to discussing the city’s school kids and reading. It’s the newsletter’s belief that there is no excuse for the school system here to oversee its children for 12 years, and at the end of those 12 years, not to have all the graduates reading at a high level. Many kids, unable to read, just drop out before the 12 years are finished. It’s a sorry situation, that, like pigeons, and gum on the sidewalk, is accepted as a normal urban tradition. ‘acityReader’ can’t accept that. We’ll keep highlighting the failure.

Her Kindle Looked Unforgiving From Where I Sat

Above the clouds she had nothing nice to hold on to

Ten days ago I’m on a plane from Salt Lake City. I’m on the aisle. The flight is smooth enough that I can read without tensing every time we shimmy through clouds, or worse, shimmy when we’re in clear blue sky. What’s that about? Anyway, I’m reading the biography of John Cheever in a beautiful Vintage paperback. I look at the cover from time to time. I look at the top of the book with my finger marking my place to see how far I am. Across the aisle and back one, a woman is reading a Kindle. She’s reading one of those Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. I looked down at it when I was coming back from the lavatory. I’m thinking, then and now, what’s the beauty in that? No wonderful cover like I’ve got. No texture. No tactile way to measure progress. No bending of the book to show you’ve been there. It was like wearing plastic Levis.

I didn’t buy Exley because of its cover. But when I got it home and looked at it, I was wowed. Here’s a novel that has at its center a favorite book of the main character’s father. A real book. A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. You may have read it. You should. The main character goes in search of the author. Look how the cover designer, Jamie Keenan, gives personality to the book. A wonderful book, by the way.

Monday, September 6, 2010


In teaching kids to read, his 42% winning percentage
is the same as DC’s last-place baseball team.

Wanna’ talk sports? I could talk it day and night. I really wanted to use the Pittsburgh Pirates as an example of woeful failure. But the Mayor was in the news recently talking about Washington, so instead I used the Nationals. I could also have used the Knicks.

42%. That’s how many kids read up to snuff in the latest test. 42% is all. And don’t think you could toss the book you’re currently reading to that 42% and have them breeze through a paragraph. I’ll bet you couldn’t take a stage full of graduates from a public high school here and be confident that even they could read your book. How can that be? How can the Mayor, leader of a system that took these kids into its care, under its tutelage as they say, when they were potential-filled six-year-olds … how could he not hang his head in shame when the tests show how much he’s let them down. Imagine the future for the other 58%. College, hell. Prison is a better bet. I haven’t seen him hang his head. Have you? Tell me, if you do.

OK, so maybe these kids come from book-less homes. Maybe from father-less homes where there’s not even a sports page lying around that might entice a kid to read about A-Rod, or LeBron, or Venus Williams. So maybe these six-year-olds come in with a reading deficit on day one. So? The schools aren’t expected to be magic kingdoms where that deficit will be made up in one semester. But the schools have them for 12 years. 12 years. That’s a very long time. Wouldn’t you think in 12 years they could make things right? Think about it. 12 years.

An even more chilling figure is this one I read recently: Only 28% of young black men graduate from high school on time. That’s right. I read it twice. 28%. I’m sure if they’d been taught to read, the number would be reversed. 82%. That’s what I think. God, if you can’t read, school must be horrible. Like gym class for an overweight kid.

The new school year just started. If 42% of kids in grades three through eight read that poorly (and it gets worse in the higher grades), imagine what the school year is going to be like. Have you read anything hopeful that will correct that? I haven’t. Charter schools? You think that’ll do it? Closing failing schools? Will that be the answer? The Pirates have the nicest, coziest new stadium in baseball. What did that do for their record?

The system is wrong. The culture of the schools is wrong. People send me articles they think I should read about this or that group or individual who’s trying to do some sideline project to help kids read. I dismiss it. I look like an ingrate, I’m sure. But to me the problem is so vast, so systemic, the only solution is to radically change the way schools operate. If the system isn’t changed, failure will continue. Maybe even get worse. Especially as TV becomes the default go-to way to pass time. It is for adults. Why wouldn’t it be for their kids.

The only way, and I mean the only way, is for the Mayor to really take control of things and turn every public school into a reading academy. Grades 1 through 12. Every day, every week, every semester. For 12 years. Books will be read, magazines, comic books, sports pages. Kids will be given time to read in school. Books they want to read. Huge amounts of time. Whatever it takes, so that when the graduating class is up on stage, you could take whatever book you might have with you and toss it to any one of them, and they could read it like your kid could, like you could have when you were 18. Don’t we owe that to them? Don’t we owe that to us?

Here’s a sports metaphor. When kids graduate, they should be able to dribble between their legs reading-wise. The way it is now, they can barely make a lay-up. But at graduation, everybody goes all dressed up to the auditorium and gets emotional about making it through high school and teachers get thanked and parents and grandparents get all choked up over the accomplishment — not aware that most of the kids going on to college are in no way ready for it. That’s a ruse. That’s a sin. Like I have, you’ve read about the huge percentage who have to do remedial work to make it through freshman year. So many don’t finish. Another ruse. Another sin.

So the answer has to be reading academies. That’s what the kids need. They have to make up ground. In reading. Math, don’t worry about it. Science, that either. It’s reading they have to excel at. The rest will follow.

Another sports reference. A term that’s always used. Reps. You read all the time, or see it on ESPN … a guy has to get in a lot of reps to get better. A young quarterback like Mark Sanchez, let’s say, has to get in a lot of reps to get comfortable at the position. You used to read how Larry Bird took 500 hundred jump shots every day. How Herschel Walker did something like 1000 sit-ups a day. All good athletes do reps. Well, for kids who need to feel comfortable with reading, reps are the answer. They have to read a lot. Just as the poor shooter has to take hundreds of shots every day, and the overweight kid has to run laps and do hundreds of sit-ups, so will the poor readers have to read, read, read.

The poor shooter may not have a hoop in his driveway, so the gym or playground is where he’d have to go to get his reps in. The gym is not always available to him, the playground either. But the poor reader has an advantage; he’s in school 10 months a year. For 12 years. What he needs is all right there. Books. Quiet. Plenty of time. Teachers. It’s the ideal place to get better at reading. Who cares if there aren’t any books at home. Or newspapers. Let the stupid TV be on day and night. There’s plenty of time in school to get the job done. It has to happen there. To hell with the current syllabus, to hell with the way it’s always been done, to hell with tenure concerns. These kids have to learn to read.

Once they’ve learned to read, reading will be fun. They can grab a Sports Illustrated or a Glamour magazine. They can read the Voice. Rolling Stone. People. They can roam around Barnes and Noble. Check books out of the library. Talk to their friends about what they’re reading. Go to college. Art school. Fashion school. Life will be more fun.

Mr. Mayor, they need you to help. Be their manager, with a new game plan. They want to stop losing.

Caption: HE WANTED TO BE THE MANAGER. You’d think he would have kicked the water cooler or have thrown bats by now over his team’s poor performance.

Sports magazines are irresistible reading portals, especially for boys.

I was bored in grade school (later schools, too) and I’d often fake sickness to stay home. My mother, anxious that I not be bored, would go down to Main Street in our small town in rural Western New York, to Engels Cigar Store, and come back with two or three sports magazines for me. She’d put one of those pillows-with-arms behind me in my bed and bring me ginger ale and lemon sherbet and ask if I needed anything else. I needed nothing else. I had all I wanted. I could read about Willie Mays and Jim Brown and Bob Cousy. I could find out about Notre Dame’s new quarterback. I was happy (happiest maybe) there in the lamplight.

Bring some of those magazines home to your kid. Get one for a neighborhood kid. If you buy them for yourself, don’t throw them out. Some boy would love them. Believe me.

Caption: SEASON’S GREETINGS. Each sport has more than a handful of fact-filled, photo-filled, pre-season magazines.


When Ernest Hemingway was in his 20s, he could already make claims to being the boss.

Two weeks ago at Strand, there were stacks of classic Hemingway titles with wonderful covers I’d never seen. They were from England. Priced unbelievably at $4.95. I had to get one. I’ll get more later, even if I already have them all with other covers. This collection came out when he was 29. To re-read him, after all the other writers you’ve read in the meantime, is to be jolted again, like hearing early Springsteen. ‘In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows…It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.’

Caption: THE FAMILY OF MAN. These are stories about men in tough situations, alone, or with other guys.

New York Mag. When it comes in the mail, it brightens the evening. It’s shinier and better designed than anything on TV. It’s a new stadium with a Jumbotron. You surely get it, don’t you?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Feeling an urge to do more than jaw about kids and reading.
Feeling an urge to get dirty.


Here’s an image that came to me this morning, when I was without one, to get this started: When you read about major leaguers who come from the Dominican Republic, they invariably, in their poverty, first played with a baseball made of socks and rubber bands. Something like that. It’s so out of our realm, I can’t even accurately recall what fragments of stuff went into the balls. You almost don’t believe it. A ball? They couldn’t find even a rubber ball somewhere? Couldn’t steal a hardball somewhere? We’ve got so many balls, we can’t imagine it. You read the same thing about Latin American soccer players. No real soccer balls as kids. Paper bags and twine instead. Again, can’t be true, we half-think. Who, we wonder, not in Africa, can be that poor? Hell, we spend three bucks and more here on a little ice cream cone. A pint of Guinness is now seven.

But it is true. And that may be what it’s like for some of the city’s poorest kids where books are concerned. Maybe you’re thinking, oh no, you’ve seen some segment on local news where grateful black kids are given books by a corporate Santa or a Target store in some feel good clip, just before they go to the national news, just before the weather man makes a joke to the female anchor who’s tamping down an upright stack of papers and smiling like he’s funny. We all feel good in our New York City then, knowing that our poor kids are being looked after, that they have nice new books, and that everybody’s smiling. Did you see the faces on those kids! No problems. I’ll take another Guinness. With tip, eight bucks.

But that’s bullshit. The world is not what they tell you it’s like at 6:29. Look at the earlier segment where they showed some Brooklyn neighborhood where somebody’s been shot, where there’s been a big fire from an ashtray or an overloaded outlet or where the landlord is not fixing the busted water pipes. Look at those faces on the women out on the sidewalk, with the long-cigarette packs and the pink lighters in their hands and slippers on their feet and there’s the yellow police tape in front of their apartment building. Those kids in there don’t have books. There’s no Barnes and Noble up the street. And what do you make your own books out of? Twine and old T shirts and rubber bands? Do you think those mothers on the sidewalk in front of those buildings with cop cars red lights swirling, with firemen breaking through the walls, read to their kids? Goodnight Moon. Goodnight who?

This Bloombergian city that pats itself on the back so often you’d think it would need a chiropractor on the premises full-time must like to watch the 6:29 sign-off part of the news better than the earlier part. How else explain why it can’t get its will together to teach the kids to read even when they have them in school for 12 years . It’s staggering that the schools don’t determine to make up for the burnt-out, book-less beginnings that so many kids start out life in. Come on. Of course it’s going to take special effort. It’s going to take thinking outside the box, outside the syllabus. It can’t go on like it’s gone on. You’ve seen the test scores. They can’t suck enough, as Imus would say. No matter the spin the mayor’s Chancellor puts on them. Unless they’re 100%, they are signs of failure. As Bill Parcells always says about a team’s record: You are what your record says you are.

So here we are in the city that has so much. It’s dynamic. No doubt. I was in Dublin a couple years ago and took scores of photos of store fronts and pubs-with-Guinness and great-looking civic buildings and parks, and people. When I got back here, I told somebody, after being wowed again by this place I’d moved to, that I could have taken as many of those great Dublin-type pictures on one block right here; there’s that much good stuff here. We’re lucky to live where we do. But we’ve got kids in this same city who in the game of reading are playing with balls made of rags.

That’s why Sean Penn comes into this. The other night at 10:00 I turned my TV on just to see what might be on Anderson Cooper who I think is great whenever I catch him. He had Sean Penn on about Haiti where Penn had been for six straight months. He was now back in California, for good or just for a while, I don’t know. But he came right through the TV screen; he was so defiantly strong and unsmilingly fearless in what he said about scenes he‘d seen or things he’d come to know while he worked to provide shelter and water and food in Haiti. Was it 100% objectively true like Margaret Warner might tell it on Jim Lehrer? Who knows. But it was his truth, told unsparingly. No soft soap. He’ll blow his cigarette smoke right in your face. He makes a newsletter like this seem feckless. He makes a blog like mine seem wimpy. com.

If it’s going to take more from Bloomberg and Klein, according to me, and I say it every issue, then it’s going to take more from me and my ‘cityReader’, too. I don’t know what that’ll be, but it’s got to go toward the Sean Penn way. It can’t just be talk. It can’t be like watching high-minded TV shows. It can’t be NPR listening. It has to be more. Something where you roll your sleeves up like Sean Penn did in Haiti.

How’s this for not rolling your sleeves up like Sean Penn did: I joined Facebook last week. Here’s why though. I ‘d been told by well-meaning folks, you need to put your project on Facebook. So I finally did. But here’s really why I did, in a kind of a Sean Penn-seeking way. I sometimes have C-Span book shows on in the background on weekends while I’m reading the paper or magazines, or sneaking a cigarette. A couple weeks ago there was a guy on who wrote a book about Facebook. He said there was a young man in Colombia, who late one night posted (I’m not even sure yet if that’s what it’s called) to his 100 friends a note about how frustrated he was, continually hearing in the media about FARC, a radical group down there. When he woke up, he had like 1500 comments already. Some weeks later 1,000,000 people marched on Bogota as a result of his late night quiet rant. Man, I thought, what if I could do that about kids and reading in New York. And so that’s why I’m on Facebook. Hoping to spread the word. Knowing that I really want to be more Sean Penn about it though.

The only thing I’ve done ‘radical’ about any of this is to get 1000 stickers that say ‘acityReader’ on them with the blog’s address. You’re not supposed to put them up, even in the East Village, and a few have already been scraped off lampposts by the department of whoever does such things, so I’ve still got most of the 1000 in my apartment. But I mean to put them all up.

caption: SEAN PENN PLAYING AN ACTIVIST. Hes one in his real life, too. His six months in Haiti were more than a cameo.
Doesn’t It Seem Like A Title For Today?

But it was 40 years ago that The Greening of America was all the talk

I was telling a friend a couple weeks ago that there are some books that gave words to what I was feeling at different times in my life. The Greening of America was certainly one of those. And not just for me; it spoke to the whole generation in 1970. I even saw my conservative father reading the excerpts from it in the evening paper.

I tried to get a copy last week. Out of print. Ouch. I was shocked. It was like Slaughterhouse-Five. I found a good used copy online. Even the quality paperbacks were pocket-size then. You actually carried them in your hip pocket. Vonnegut, Heller, Pirsig. To hold it now is to recall that time. I haven’t read it again. I’ve dipped into it. It’s a little intense. There was a war going on.

caption: EVOKING AN ERA. Looking at the cover art now, it’s as iconic as a T shirt.
Ginsberg Shoots His Buddies

Beat Memories collects his photographs of his closest friends.

I’m going to Washington next week to see The National Gallery of Art’s show of 80 photographs that Allen Ginsberg took, mostly from 1953-1963, of Kerouac and Cassady and Corso and Burroughs and others who made up the Beats. I’ve looked at most of these photos more than a hundred times in an earlier book, snapshot poetics. I can’t recommend the book enough. It’s in paperback. You should own it.

This new one, Beat Memories is all that and more. It’s put out to accompany the exhibition. There are all the photos I’ve stared at before, and then some. Additionally, there’s an enlightening essay by Sarah Greenough. There’s also an interview with Ginsberg from 1991. You should own this book, too. The exhibit lasts through September 6. You could go. Take the Bolt Bus.

caption: ‘THE POIGNANCY OF A PHOTOGRAPH comes from looking back at a fleeting moment in a floating world’—Allen Ginsberg

Harvey Pekar wrote a few things, music and book reviews, for a weekly paper,
The Edition
, I ran in Cleveland in the 80s and 90s. He was wonderfully,
bewilderingly challenging. R.I.P.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


and other tell-tale signs that make you yawn at the school board meeting (now called, less democratically, the Panel for Educational Policy)

The most recent meeting was in late June in Manhattan (they rotate each month among the boroughs) at Murry Bergtraum High School on Pearl Street right by the Brooklyn Bridge. I went.

You think you’re at the wrong place when you get there 45 minutes early, even if you’ve witnessed the scene before at other school board meetings. There’s this huddle of cops outside the door and you wonder again if there’s been some problem or if the meeting’s been cancelled because Obama or some other big pol is in town and is being feted there. There are that many uniforms. Certainly more than you’d expect (I wouldn’t expect any) for a school board meeting, where if tradition holds, maybe 50 earnest citizens will show up. Most of them women.

It’s too early really to go in, and I roam around Pearl Street to kill time, wishing there were a bookstore I could duck into. I’m always wishing that. But even in a tonier neighborhood like Tribeca there isn’t one, even with the perfect demographics there. So there wouldn’t be one here. And I make do with a CVS; I go in and look around. I buy a Zone bar. And head back to the school.

Inside there’s a desk immediately up the entranceway’s polished stairs and the guard sitting there makes me feel a little self-conscious (passing by all those cops out front can do that to you) as I eat the last half of my Zone bar and look at signs on the wall. The biggest shows slash marks through a hat and a cell phone. I wouldn’t want to go to school there. I’m not going to say it feels like a prison. I wouldn’t know what that’s like. It’s very clean. But it doesn’t feel like the school I went to or my kids went to. It feels more like the very clean factory my father ran. I expect to see a sign that says ‘hard hat area’.

The guard asks if I’m there to make a comment later at the meeting and when I say no, they point me to the left and I go right where they say to go. I notice a photocopied sign taped to the wall along my way that says Men’s Restroom, near which I figure there’ll be a water fountain where I can rinse my mouth of that dusty sweet taste (no matter which flavor you get) a Zone bar leaves you with. I head the way the arrow on the sign says. And the guard from the table hollers at me, like I’m sneaking backstage. I tell him I’m going to the restroom and he gets OK with that.

The auditorium slated for the 6 to 8pm meeting is dimly lit like a bus terminal. No skylights. Low wattage. Security guards around. There’s a plainclothes cop (you can tell) sitting across the aisle from me. There aren’t many people there. A scattering of mostly African-American women. Up on the stage there is a long table with wings that will accommodate the panel. Each seat has a name plate in front of it, but the table is so far back on the stage that you can’t read the names. The only sign you can read clearly is an electronic one right up at the front of the stage with red LED numbers like a 24-second NBA clock. This one is set at 2:00...two minutes.

In the aisle right near me and in the other aisle at the long end of my row are microphones set up with signs taped to them saying: “Each Speaker Will Be Allowed Up To 2 Minutes.” You wonder why it’s set to two minutes. You’ve been to a dozen of these meetings, and it isn’t like a big time-consuming dialogue is going to take place. Most of the questions are addressed to Chancellor Klein and he’s no more apt to get into a discussion with the speakers than a wooden Indian would be. The questioners are tolerated, at best, at these things. They’d be better off calling C-Span or Boomer Esiason. They’d get more respect.

Once the panel gets seated, you’re disappointed that the microphones in front of them don’t send the sound out your way loudly or clearly. You’d be mad if you took your kid to see ‘Annie’ and the sound was that bad. And the table is so far back that you’ve got to look pretty closely to see whose mouth is moving. It’s not impressive. Nor is the fact that at any time you can look up and see as many as a quarter of them fiddling with their Blackberries. One young member walks in more than an hour late, slides his suit coat off, puts it on the back of the chair, takes his seat, reaches down into the coat pocket and pulls out his Blackberry and starts checking out his messages. He hasn’t been there a minute. No one’s going to say anything to him; the Chancellor’s on his Blackberry more than anyone.

Nothing much goes on. There is a screen above the stage that hypes some national numbers that show the fourth graders in the city have out-performed the rest of the state in reading, which is a good thing. But you think to yourself sitting there that this is New York Fucking City, the home of Random House and The New Yorker and a hundred other literate things I could list. So we beat Buffalo and my old hometown in rural western New York, and we beat Corning. That’s like saying Antwerp beat the other Belgian towns in diamond cutting.

The rest of the meeting is about budgets and the like. It’s boring, especially since you can’t hear what they’re saying very clearly.

It’s really all a yawn and everyone in the room is bored by it, panel included, except for the citizens who’ve written out what they’re going to say, and have timed it to two minutes, because they know about the two minute warning, but after adjusting the mike and clearing their throat and overcoming their jitters, it lasts a little longer than two minutes. But no matter, the bell goes off exactly when their time’s up and they have to stop.

It’s boring because there’s nothing radical going on. Most NYC public school kids cannot read well enough when they graduate (if they even do) to read To Kill a Mockingbird for pleasure, and up on stage more than a dozen adults are considering nothing radical to change that. Charter schools are as radical as they’ll go. Smaller schools are high right now on their priority list. Closing poor-performing schools is championed, as if the building’s structure caused poor reading performance.

You sit there and can feel the sluggishness. It’s like being in church, where no one gives evidence of being filled with the spirit. You want to stand up and say…hey, how come the kids aren’t taught to read proficiently? Here it is another school year over. Another year of failure. Because all the kids can’t read well. They’ve been in the city schools since early fall. They’ve been doing that drill for some years, in some cases for 12 years. And still most of the students can’t read well.

You wish someone on the board could explain that failure. Is it just a part of city life to them that most of the poor kids can’t read? Is it just something we have to accept? Like pigeons and rats? You wish some board member would speak clearly into his or her mike, and take two minutes to say: This is nuts. We’re not doing our job.

Caption: Don’t Take Up Our Time. Speakers are not really listened to.
At Least The Libraries Will Stay Open

But here in long-hours New York City, it should be more

According to a mailing from the New York Public Library, over 130,000 New Yorkers sent notes to the city to get budget officials to reconsider the talked-about $37 million cut that would have darkened the libraries up to three days a week. These petitions must have helped. Now the libraries will stay open five days a week. That’s a relief. But still, even symbolically that’s not enough. This is Book Country, the home office of the publishing industry. You’d think library hours here would never be compromised. This is a city where you can eat late, drink till 4 in the morning. That’s radical, compared to Cleveland, let’s say. Why don’t we do something radical about library hours. Why not keep them open late. Open ‘em early. The kids are the future, pols always say. They say a lot they don’t do. We shouldn’t let them just talk about kids and the future and not hold them to it.

Caption: Kids want adults to be strong advocates for them. Let’s give them more hours.
Ann Beattie Was Like
Joni Mitchell To Us In The 70s

So I went to hear her read last month in Brooklyn

She still looked like the old dust jacket photos, even if it’s impossibly 35 years since we fell in love with her face. She has a new book out, a novella, Walks with Men. That’s what brought her to Brooklyn for a reading.

Not many people were there. I commented to my friend who went with me that it was hard to believe so few people showed up, so few late baby boomers who lived their lives in some ways according to the manners of her books. Like they lived their lives according to Dylan or Joni.

I read the novella. I’ve gone back to her older stories. Don’t miss reading them in your life.

The reading was at Book Court on Court Street in Cobble Hill. A perfect bookstore. Go some day, some night.

Caption: We Lived Accordingly. Her books were cautionary tales, and how-to manuals, at the same time.

I got this CD for sending a donation (I think it was
$65) to WNYC. I usually don’t ask them to send me
something. This time I did, because I remembered
one of my kids likes Jakob Dylan. I listen to parts of
Brian Lehrer’s and Leonard Lopate’s show every
day. I should have sent them hundreds of dollars.
These guys should each make hundreds of dollars
every hour they’re on. They’re better at what they
do than people in the city who do make that kind of
money. Send money to their station.
And listen to them.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ray Bradbury, a living legend, has a novel take on what schools should do about reading. Mary Leonhardt thinks about it and responds.

P.S. 451

In the latest ‘Paris Review’, there’s a lengthy interview with Ray Bradbury, my first favorite writer, whose book, Something Wicked This Way Comes, was the first I may have bought off one of those paperback book racks. I was a freshman in high school. I’d never heard of Ray Bradbury. I was only into sports stuff then. But the book seized my attention for some reason. It was a turning point in my life. I stopped spending every free moment bouncing balls and started looking for ways to be by myself with books that seized me.

In the interview Bradbury says:
‘Our education system has gone to hell…Young children must be taught how to read and write…We must not let them go into fourth and fifth grade not knowing how to read. So we must put out books with educational pictures, or use comics to teach them how to read.
We should forget about teaching children mathematics. They’re not going to use it ever in their lives. Give them simple arithmetic—one plus one is two, and how to divide, and how to subtract. Those are simple things that can be taught quickly. But no mathematics because they are never going to use it, never in their lives, unless they are going to be scientists, and then they can simply learn it later…If you are bright you will learn how to educate yourself with mathematics if you need it. But the average child never will. So it must be reading and writing.’

I underlined that when I read it. I agree with it, of course. I wondered what Mary Leonhardt thought of it. She has contributed to ‘acityReader’ twice so far. Actually her books on kids and reading seized me like Bradbury’s book did. Here’s what she thinks:

I wasn’t a big Bradbury fan but one of his books, Dandelion Wine, I really loved: the image of the little boy up in the tower in the morning, turning on the lights all over town, the boy wearing the wondrous first-of-the-summer sneakers, the golden dandelion wine. It was a book about happiness, and a happiness dependent on a child’s imaginings.

There are so many reasons why the best educational gift we can give children is a love of reading. One not usually thought of is the way books help children pretend—and imagine a life quite different from their own. I remember my daughter and her friends playing “Narnia” by pretending to be all of the different characters in the series. Children who can imagine being a unicorn or a wicked witch can later, in their lives, imagine being a doctor, or going on a safari. They can imagine a life much richer than the one fate seems to be dealing them.

But I think Bradbury got the math part a little wrong. Math is important. My son points out that people who play the lottery are math-challenged. They have no understanding of probability. People who spend themselves deep into debt often don’t understand, along the way, exactly how all of these little charges on their charge card are going to become a mountain of debt that overwhelms them.

But Bradbury was completely right about teaching reading being much more important—because one of the many other gifts that a habit of avid reading bestows is, very often, the ability to learn math easily and quickly. Yes: Avid readers are usually pretty good at math as well.

I first realized this when I was teaching high school English and writing books about how to get kids reading. One thing I did then was to study SAT scores of avid readers. I found what I was looking for—the verbal scores of avid readers were always very high, while the SAT scores of good students who did little independent reading were pretty mediocre. There were the kids everyone called “poor testers”, but I knew they just weren’t avid readers.

But then something else jumped out at me. The kids with very high verbal scores almost all had high math scores as well. Not scores as high as their verbal scores, but very respectable scores—usually in the 600 range, which was a very high score then. But it didn’t work the other way. Kids with very high math scores did not necessarily have high verbal scores. Their verbal scores were just as likely to be in the low 500’s or 400’s.

So a high verbal score seemed to guarantee a high math score, but a high math score did not guarantee a high verbal score.

I’ve thought about this a lot. My guess is that avid reading—which is necessary for the high verbal scores—develops the ability to process information in a sophisticated way. Think of children reading a Harry Potter book. Not only do they have to understand a world with customs and rules completely different from their own, they have to understand characters whose identity even shifts around. Who is good? Who is evil? Who is out to get Harry?

And the incredible wealth of details and descriptions in those books! Some of my high school students used to reread all of the books currently in the series before a new one was due. They wanted to make sure they remembered everything perfectly.

Now multiply this by hundreds of books, the number that avid readers read in their childhood. They have stretched their minds hundreds of times by following multiple plots and characters, by understanding the major themes in life—that things aren’t always what they seem, that people grow through adversity, that bravery and goodness are their own reward.

The kind of elastic mind that grows through avid reading can figure out math problems and chemistry equations, and the causes of World War II. It’s a mind that doesn’t just retain information; it’s a mind that sees subtleties, that understands different perspectives, that can grasp the whole, rather than just the part, of a problem.

I used to be surprised when my avid fantasy readers seem to gravitate towards a love of history. Weren’t they opposite? Then I realized that most great fantasy writers—J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman—create complex political worlds with different factions shifting for power and control. Just like history!

Historical fiction is also wonderful background, allowing children to understand different cultures and times. Romances explore relationships. Stories of families can help illuminate a child’s own family.

Here is how I would run an elementary school—how I would “teach” reading:

After children acquire a basic ability to read simple books—with luck by second grade—I would fill their classrooms, the library, the halls, the cafeteria, all of the offices—with reading material they could easily love. Comics. Magazines. Easy reader books. Lots of popular children’s fiction. Mysteries. Fantasy. Anything I could find that children would read.

Then for at least three or four hours every day, I would have quiet reading time in the classrooms. Let the children choose what they want to read. Don’t give them tests. Don’t make them answer comprehension questions and do worksheets. No: have rugs, beanbag chairs, comfortable sofas—and let the children read.

While the children are reading the teacher can also read, but she can also use this quiet time to give individual help to children, with writing, with math, with whatever children are having trouble understanding. But most of the teaching will be done by the books: books that children love will teach them much more sophisticated reading and writing skills than a million worksheets and vocabulary drills.

You think children won’t sit still for this? For years I taught tenth graders who hated reading, who were scoring the lowest on all kinds of achievement tests. I just sat them down in my book-filled classroom and said, “Read.” And, after awhile, they did. By the end of the semester they were pleading for more “just reading” days. When the bell rang for lunch, many would be still hunched over their books, reluctant to leave those enthralling worlds. Years later now I run into these kids occasionally, and always ask them if they are still reading. The answer is usually yes. And they are usually doing well in a career.

So if you want children to do well in math—and science and history and foreign languages and technology and everything else—my advice is simple: make sure they have plenty of good books to read, and time to read them.

Caption: Listening in on a conversation with Ray Bradbury. ‘The Paris Review’ interviews with writers are the last word.
Books, Interrupted

Budget cuts could shut some libraries, reduce hours for sure

Here’s what the New York Public Library flier says: 18 million visits to the system’s branches each year. 50 million books and other materials. 39,000 programs and classes. 600,000 visits to children’s programs. 34,000 attended job classes. Thousands of books loaned to nursing homes, senior centers, schools, and prisons.

Here’s what’s at stake, according to the flier, if budget cuts happen:10 branches closed. Others open only 4 days. 736 staff positions eliminated.

You might not be a library-goer. You’re missing out if you’re not. There are way more interesting, and worthwhile things in them than there were in the Virgin record stores. They’re more stimulating than Whole Foods. Better than anything on TV. Books, newspapers, magazines, chairs, tables, lights, community bulletin boards, wifi. Now, all that’s there for you 6 days a week. You don’t want less. Go to and see how you can help. And go to your branch, if you don’t normally. Check out what’s been there all along for you.

Caption: Go to the site. It’s as important as keeping schools open.
A Store of One’s Own

Why not be somebody at your local bookshop

Did you know you used to be able to borrow books in bookstores? They had lending libraries in the store and you could rent a book, for not much. Hemingway used to do that at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, an English language bookshop in Paris during that famous time of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway and James Joyce. Beach got known for publishing Ulysses in 1922 when big publishers, and even big countries, like ours, wouldn’t touch it. Ex-pat writers would pick up their mail there, cash a check. Sounds great, doesn’t it.

Well, you could have a bookstore here where they know your name. Just pick an independent bookshop near you or one somewhere in town that you really like, and start going in there often. Order books from them. Email an order to them. Call them. You live in New York, like Hemingway lived in Paris. Order books like he did. Hell, be like Hem. Fish the Amazon, don’t
order books from it.

Caption: An American in Paris. Sylvia Beach fashioned the store and life (I think) she wanted.

I stayed up all night on a train from Florida to South Bend,
reading this on my way back to school from spring break,
maybe 1967. This is a newer edition.
It’s as good as the cover might lead you to believe.

Monday, May 3, 2010

It’s a totally interesting book, enviably well-written. But how many New York City public high school kids could read it?


If you were in the same room, even in the same house, with me, I’d have interrupted whatever you were doing and read out loud to you a score of passages from David Remnick’s The Bridge. Obama is the most important guy in the world. He’s young, and unique among people in power for being cool and coordinated. He’s from Hawaii, and he’s half-black and half-white, and he’s under siege by idiots. And what could you be doing that was more interesting than hearing about this guy. That’s what I would think as I went Yo, and said, “Listen to this!”

Here’s one about Michelle when she was at Princeton:
One of Michelle’s freshman-year roommates at Pyne Hall, a girl named Catherine Donnelly, from New Orleans, moved out midway through the year. Donnelly’s mother was so upset at the notion of her daughter rooming with a black girl that she telephoned influential alumni and hectored the university administration to get Catherine another room.

Just before I read that, ‘Conde Nast Traveler’ magazine arrived with a picture of Michelle on the cover, in the White House, in a beautiful sleeveless, rose-colored dress, wearing pearls and pointed low-heeled shoes. And that great face. And I thought, screw you Mrs. Donnelly, look where Michelle Robinson is now.

There are all sorts of things about Obama’s mother and father and grandparents, and his days in Hawaii and Indonesia. His high school is a big factor in his growth. So is coming here to New York to go to Columbia (which he did in junior year; he started at Occidental College in California). Harvard is huge. Chicago even more huge. Remnick evokes each of these stops along the way with a great writer’s great details. It all moves like a wonderful magazine article that you don’t want to end. Even as you approach the 586th page, you want to stay in it.

One of the reasons is that Obama is always moving. He’s going somewhere. Ambitious. Destined. Genetically endowed to stand out. Graceful. Curious. Brotherless. Neither all-black nor all-white, he keeps looking to define himself. He glides. You go along with him. He’s irresistible even on the page. You’re taken with him, like everyone is. Even the Black pols in Chicago, who’d been at it long before he showed up — all J.Crew-looking with his Harvard law degree — have to respect his intelligence and his drive. He won’t be denied. You know as you read it that he’s in the White House now. And you see why, all along the way. His eye is never not on the prize. You don’t resent him for it. You just watch the glide. You roll with it. You want to be him. You turn the book in your hands and look at the cover; more than once. You’re inspired by the story.

Yo, listen to this, I’d say again. I’d like to be a teacher and say it to Black students in the city schools. Listen to this:
As a young man, Obama searched for clues to his own identity by very purposefully reading his way through DuBois, Hughes, Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, and Malcolm X. He has also mentioned texts by Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, and a range of novelists—in particular, Toni Morrison. In fact, reading as a way of becoming is a feature of African-American autobiography, as it is of so many outsider-memoirists of any ethnicity. In memoirs of all kinds, a young person in search of a way to rise above his circumstances or out of his confusion invariably goes to the bookshelf. Malcolm X, for one, provides an extended account of his self-education. He reads histories by Will Durant and H.G. Wells, which gave him a glimpse into ‘black people’s history before they came to this country’; he reads Carter G. Woodson’s ‘The Negro in Our History’, which ‘opened my eyes about black empires before the black slave was brought to the United States and the early Negro struggles for freedom.’ In ‘Soul on Ice’, Eldridge Cleaver recounts his reading of Rousseau, Paine, Voltaire, Lenin, Bakunin…as a means of detailing his own radical catechism. Young autobiographers also read other memoirs to learn the form. Claude Brown told an audience in New York in 1990 that he carefully studied the structures of Douglass’s slave narratives and Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’ before writing ‘Manchild in the Promised Land’, his memoir of growing up in Harlem in the nineteen-forties and fifties. Even Sammy Davis, Jr., in his Harlem-to-Hollywood autobiography, ‘Yes I Can’, is eager to tell the reader that, while he was on ‘latrine duty’ in the Army, he became an obsessive reader of Wilde, Rostand, Poe, Dickens, and Twain; and that helped him endure the racism of his fellow soldiers.

One of the principal aspects of the book that makes it bright is the brightness of all the people in it. From Obama’s mother and father to the staff he picked for the White House. Books flow through them. Education is the way they made it. They are all aspirants. It makes them percolate. It makes the book move.

You wish young people would read it. You wish it would be assigned. Seniors in high school, let’s say, would undertake it for a month. Get someone to donate fresh copies for all the seniors in the system. Younger students would see the big kids reading it and want to do the same. I can recall when I was a freshman in high school, seeing one of the upperclassmen, a cool guy in my eyes, walking out of a classroom carrying a copy of James Joyce’s [ital]A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man[ital]. It looked so mature, so collegiate, that I couldn’t wait to grow older and read it.

But could it work in the city school system? Could enough of the kids read at a level to understand it, get the magic from it? Maybe have their lives changed by it? Like Cleaver’s life was changed by reading. Like Malcolm’s. Like Barack Obama’s life was changed.

Here’s something the schools could use as a guide. A better one I think than working toward passing the Regents exams. What if the seniors, like I imagined, were in fact going to be given that month in the last semester to read The Bridge. Meaningfully read it. That might give direction to the curriculum-makers. They’d know they would have to prepare kids all along the way, from pre-school on really, to be able to read a book like this one when they were seniors,. Wouldn’t that direct them? Wouldn’t that be some real prize to eye? I think so.

The way it is now, they couldn’t do it — if they even hung around till senior year. Pathetic isn’t it? Isn’t it? After 12 years, going to school most of the year, each of those years, they couldn’t do it. Haven’t the principals noticed? Haven’t they said this is crazy that we haven’t sent these kids off with an ability to read well.

One more Yo from me:

It is from Obama’s famous speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004. As he was winding down, he went into a Tom Joad-like list of purpose. First thing on his list, and you can imagine, may even remember, how he sounded saying it: If there’s child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.

Barack Obama would wish, for all sorts of reasons, that that child could read David Remnick’s book.

We should wish that too, and work to see that it happens. It’s a bridge that needs crossing.

Caption: What a shame. The city school kids here can’t get out of books what Obama got out of them.
Taking the Show to Brooklyn

A meeting about charter schools draws a crowd

I went to Brooklyn last month to take in a monthly school board meeting. (They move the meetings among the boroughs.) They call the board here the Panel for Educational Policy. Don’t let the name fool you, like they want it to. Spanky and Alfalfa dressed as G-men would fit right in at their long table. You should go to one of these meetings.

The night’s issue was charter schools and it drew a fervent crowd of supporters. Mothers and their young kids were there in force. Dressed up in same-color T-shirts and same-color baseball caps, carrying signs, they could have been at a union rally or all sitting together at the Little League World Series. They were almost exclusively African-American. This was their cause. These schools. They’re true believers. I’m not. Unless they turn them into reading academies, they’ll not change things much for the kids. And I thought it was a kind of racism to have cute little black girls with their hair done just right come up to the microphones and be cute little black girls with their hair done just right. That’s an old bit. The Panel loved it.

Caption: One of the many signs in the auditorium pleading for charter schools.
What Makes a Perfect Book

The Bridge is the perfect model

Not to beat a cliché, but you know it when you see it: perfection. A just-poured pint of Guinness. A perfectly-flat-brimmed red baseball cap on a Black kid’s head. Long Converse sneakers at the bottom of a long pair of faded Levis. The book about Obama by David Remnick is like that. The photo on the front is by Martin Schoeller, who did the Andre Agassi book cover, and who’s done all sorts of famous portraits. That draws you, like a hot magazine cover does. That photo with the typeface and the way it’s put together by Chip Kidd makes you pick it up. And when you do, its heft and feel make you want to own it, read it. You open it and the weight of the paper and the binding leave the book lying flat like the big book at church, like the big dictionary at the library. It’s by Knopf. Nothing finer.

Caption: It looks at you from the window; you look back.

There’s no magazine that combines
wonderful writing with wonderful photos like this one.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A sometimes teacher takes a reading on his former students...and himself


I was between editing jobs 10 years ago, when I shook hands with a guy in a bar in the East Village and said I’d love to give it a try, to teach mostly minority junior and senior boys English at a lower-rung Catholic high school. The guy, 25 years younger than I, was head of the English department and we’d met in that bar to feel each other out. He was in a hurry to find a teacher. I’d seen an ad for the position on some do-good web site just the day before. It was late September and the teacher who’d started the year had--already--not worked out. He’d had real problems with discipline. But I was not worried or anxious about that, I said, over beers. I couldn’t wait to get started.

I had taught before. 30 years earlier. In 1969 I was fresh from college where I’d been married just before my senior year (a not that unusual occurrence back then; the Vietnam war intensified experiences and hurried along decisions, in a kind of ‘tomorrow is promised to no one’ way. My wife couldn’t come to my graduation; she was back in our off-campus apartment, in bedroom slippers, with our week-old daughter). And I then certainly didn’t want to go to Southeast Asia as a soldier. I didn’t even want to get in the National Guard. The only way I could figure to get out of being called to the regular army was to teach school.

Teaching was something I’d never really considered before then. As much as I liked books, and kids, and as much as I wasn’t cut out for the business world that my father had been a big success in, teaching seemed to me then like a Hush-Puppies, lunch-in-a-brown-paper-bag world, with no appeal to me.

But as graduation neared, I changed my mind. Teaching, beyond the certain deferment status it would give me, began to seem like the movie I wanted to be in. I had lined-up a job as a fifth-grade English teacher in an inner-city Catholic school in Cleveland where my wife was from. (I was from a rural western New York State small town that offered no prospects for teaching jobs; offered no prospects, period, other than an eventual job running my father’s [and grandfather’s before him] business, something I definitely didn’t plan on doing.) I was eager to teach in a gritty, urban school. It was just the thing for those times. And I already had all the gear. I had a corduroy sport coat, long hair, and a tan VW bug.

I loved the setting, the students (all Black), the fellow teachers. I read all the books about free schools, and devoured books and magazine articles about various radical approaches to teaching. I played basketball with the 8th graders in the gym after school. Many afternoons I’d go out for beers when classes ended with the other white male teacher; he was also there for a deferment.

I stayed in teaching for six years. While I had, during that first year, been called for an army physical and been given a medical deferment for bronchial asthma, which I really didn’t have (letters from my small-town doctor, making more of my chronic hay fever than was justified, must have allowed the military doctor to excuse me, a lucky white boy, from consideration), I decided to stick with teaching for the six years that I had planned to ‘use’ the profession to keep me out of the war. And, not to take too much credit for altruism, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. Besides, I thought I was pretty good in the classroom. Even if I didn’t remedy what became shockingly, sadly, frustratingly apparent to me: Most of the kids in the school had a very difficult time with reading.

But let’s come back to my second attempt at teaching, at that boys school here. And let’s call it my second chance. Because in the intervening 30 years, I’d felt a little uneasy with how I had, in the naïve, idealistic way of those times, maybe not done all I could to actually teach those kids to read. I had, like many, if not most, young teachers back then, in inner-city schools, done everything but wear a dashiki, to ingratiate myself to the Black students. I wanted them to love me. I needed to be one with them. My white guilt over-rode my obligation. I was trying to learn from them.

So when I began my second chance as a teacher, I wanted to make amends. I was determined to take pains to teach the young men I’d meet in my classes the beauty of reading.

I festooned my classroom with cool-looking-to-me dust jackets of books I thought they’d like. I filled plastic milk crates with all kinds of magazines I’d scavenged from twined, about-to-be-recycled bundles outside apartment buildings all over town. Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Vibe, XXL, Time, Architectural Digest, People, Slam, Entertainment Weekly. Even Vogue. Anything to let them see that heat rose off a page. That they weren’t limited to TV and headphones. That reading was better than just sitting and staring, or, as too often happens in school, putting their head down on the desk and sleeping.

Out of my own pocket I went up to Strand and bought multiple copies of paperback books I thought we’d like. Drown by Junot Diaz, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I read out loud to them. I gave them free time to read on their own. The magazine crates were kept neat and were replenished frequently, and they could read them whenever they had time. I gave them lots of time. Sometimes, when they’d all have a book or magazine in front of them, the room was quiet in that great stimulating way. My eyes watered a few times.

I caught shit from the authorities, of course, when one of them would walk by and notice the silence. They’d poke their head in to see what was going on. They didn’t like what they saw. They didn’t see the value in the kids reading magazines and books of their choosing. They were shocked, I know, to see me reading too. They wanted worksheets and vocabulary drills. They wanted what they were used to.

The kids were terrible readers. All those years of worksheets and underlining adverbs and answering questions at the end of the story in big, heavy anthologies, hadn’t helped, as far as I could see. The kids could not read easily; some hardly at all. And yet the school was going to see to it that almost all of them got into some college. That seemed crazy to me. The standards and the state tests and the college admissions departments had to be kidding. These kids could barely read. And the kids knew it. They didn’t want to read out loud. They didn’t want to write either. How could they write well, if they couldn’t read? How could they do anything in school really, other than a few of them who could draw in art class, without knowing how to read?

What must it be like in the public schools? I wondered. It had to be even worse. I grew cynical. I still am. I don’t trust any of the numbers in the paper. I don’t trust the tests they take. I don’t trust the authorities. Once I told the seniors that if a group of freshmen from Harvard came to town and they were paired off with you guys for the weekend, you’d find that you could beat them at just about any sport. You‘d be stronger than they are. Your teeth would be straighter. You could sing better. Be funnier. Know how to get around the city better. Find drugs for them. Finds girls. The only thing they could do better than you is read.

I don’t know if that made a dent. I don’t know if anything I did that year did. I know I left with a big impression. The kids, 30 years later, couldn’t really read any better than Mattie Townes or Howard Smith or Julio Taylor or Leon Anderson or Janice Troulierre or Jerry Watts or Loretta Hight or Joseph Pollard or the other kids in the 5th grade at St. Agnes School on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio in those wide-eyed, hopeful years when young men in Volkswagens thought they could change the world.

Photo Caption: My attempt. Some of the magazines I brought to class. I hope it worked.