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?