Thursday, November 21, 2013

Do The French Have A Name For It?

When it comes to teaching poor kids to read well, it seems they don’t.

The French guy gets it. He looked at my sign this morning. I’d never seen him before. He stopped and said, ‘Exactly. That is an excellent sign. We have the same problem in France where I’m from. They don’t seem to recognize that unless the poor children are taught to read, they can’t do the other school subjects. Why don’t they know that?’ We talked for a few minutes. Both agreeing with each other that the kids need to know how to read well, before they can even know how to write. Reading is the foundation for all of it, we nodded together. We each took off one glove in the cold and shook hands.

I take an hour walk in the afternoons along the East River. Yesterday I had an NPR show in my ears. I couldn’t listen to sports talk yesterday with all the predictable groaning over the Jets and the Knicks. The NPR show had on the author of a book about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane. Jane wrote many letters to her brother. The host asked if young women in those days were taught to read and write like the young men were. The author replied that they were definitely taught to read, so that they could read the Bible.

We had a Bible in our house when I was a kid. It had a soft light green leather cover and the edges of the pages were shiny gold. It had my parents’ wedding date in the front and the birth dates of the three kids. I stared at my mother’s perfect handwriting in it many times. It was on an end table in the living room and sometimes I would pick it up by the spine and dangle it with the pages facing the floor. It was very thick and heavy and I liked the way it felt holding it that way. Not one word of it was ever read in our house. Not by me or my sisters or my parents or my grandmother who lived with us before she died or my aunt who lived with us for awhile. We were Catholics, and Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible. Protestants read the Bible. Not Catholics. We weren’t supposed to learn on our own. We were supposed to hear the priest read passages from it during Mass on Sundays, and then tell us what it meant. I wonder if Jane had been Catholic if she would have been taught to read so definitely.

On the #6 train a week ago my eyes landed on the stunning cheekbones of an Asian mother reading a book to her pre-school daughter. It was a paperback chapter book and the mother read it so purposefully that the child, even as she slid around on the slippery subway seat, kept her eyes glued to the important book and her mother’s voice. The mother didn’t put the book in her big canvas tote bag until the train stopped at the last station. A young black kid, junior-high-age maybe, in a Yankee cap and basketball shoes, with nothing in his hands, across the aisle from them, watched the angel mother read as appreciatively as I did.

Sometimes when people walk by the sign and me, they’ll smile a full, warm smile and say, ‘Ain’t that the truth!’, and I’ll say back, with total assurance, ‘It could change the world.’ I don’t always think to say that. But that’s what I wish I’d have said to everyone who’s made a comment. It’s what I believe. It’s why I hold the sign. This will be my third winter standing with the sign for an hour every weekday on Chambers Street. Some of the passers-by who haven’t seen me till this year are surprised I’m there in the cold weather. I like being there in the cold. This morning I had a dull headache from the Guinness and the Jameson I had last night at a tavern across the street from my Third Avenue apartment. I went there to watch all the games on the big screens, after I’d read another chapter in Donna Tartt’s spectacular new novel, The Goldfinch. An earlier me might have skipped class on such a morning after or taken the day off from work. But a little headache is nothing now to a guy who thinks his sign’s message could change the world.

Here are two paragraphs from Tartt’s book. In them, 13-year-old Theo has come from the Upper East Side down into the Village, looking for someone who might have an important answer:

And so it was that around half past eleven, I found myself riding down to the Village on the Fifth Avenue bus with the street address of Hobart and Blackwell in my pocket, written on a page from one of those monogrammed notepads Mrs. Barbour kept by the telephone.

Once I got off the bus at Washington Square, I wandered for about forty-five minutes looking for the address. The Village, with its erratic layout (triangular blocks, dead-end streets angling this way and that) was an easy place to get lost, and I had to stop and ask directions three times: in a news shop full of bongs and gay porn magazines, in a crowded bakery blasting opera, and of a girl in white undershirt and overalls who was outside washing the windows of a bookstore with a squeegee and bucket. 

Last Sunday morning two young women and a guy-friend of theirs came to my apartment with a movie
camera. Some months ago one of them had come across one of these newsletters in a bookstore downtown and got a hold of me. She liked the message in the newsletter and wondered if she and her old college friend, who like her had been a film major, could shoot some kind of film about me and why I was so interested in every kid learning to read well. Of course, I said, whenever you want.

So, they set up their lights and put the camera on a tripod in front of me, sitting there on my couch in one of my everyday long-sleeve blue t-shirts, with a bad haircut. The one girl asked questions while the other two monitored the focus and the sound. I talked for the better part of two hours. It was like Freudian analysis. I was allowed to talk without interruption. I learned things, as I said whatever came to mind. I said I loved the poor city kids and was outraged that they weren’t being taught to read. I said it was a sin that they were being denied the chance to be full members of our culture. I said the sign says I love them, and the French guy loves them too. So do other people who smile at the sign in a certain way. Sometimes my eyes almost water when I see a warm face connect with the sign.

When the young filmmakers packed up their stuff and said thank you, we’ll be in touch, we shook hands goodbye. And after I’d closed the door behind them, I broke down in tears for a few seconds.

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