While I was working on my Undergraduate Degree – so many years ago, now – I got involved with a program intended to help promote literacy. It was called Time-to-Read – it’s a program sponsored by the Time Warner company. So, twice a week I woke up at 7:30 in the morning – earlier than any self-respecting undergrad ever gets up – and hopped on my bike to ride a couple of miles out from the campus to an elementary school on the underprivileged side of town.
There, I worked with a couple of students – a different pair on each of the two days I went – using the Time-to-Read readers – little pamphlets with kid-friendly news stories and word games – to give the kids a little time to practice their reading in a more private, personal setting, for about a half an hour outside of normal class.
It was a humbling experience.
And it put my own experience and history into perspective. We were never wealthy, growing up. Our family clung tenaciously to the underside of the Middle Class, trying to climb up during the good times, but never letting go during the tough ones. Through all my years in public schools, I don’t recall a one where we didn’t qualify for Free or Reduced Lunches. But there were two advantages we had that so many others lacked that made us children of privilege: a mother with an unwavering devotion to the quality of her children’s education, and books.
During our primary school years, my Mom never failed to take an opportunity to be a part of our education. She volunteered at school. She helped with and checked our homework. She and my father went to every Parent-Teacher night. During the summer, she had us read and practice math, reading, and writing from a set of educational books they’d bought for us. We thought it was pretty draconian to make us do homework during the Summer, but in retrospect I have to thank my mother for that. It set me up not only for a lifetime of learning, but a lifetime of over-achieving in my education.
But I’m especially grateful for the books. No, not those education books we had to read out of over the summers. I mean the novels. Several dozens of them, maybe hundreds in all. I never took a full count. Even if you count out all the romance novels on my mom’s shelves, there were more than enough books to fill my childhood with fantasy, science fiction, and adventure. And I’m thankful for my parents’ examples. My parents read. My dad less so as the years went by, for lack of free time, but by then there were so many books that it didn’t matter.
I always credit Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles with starting my love affair with Fantasy (I’ve blogged about that before), but that’s most probably because those books were the most accessible to me at a young age. There had always been fantasy and science fiction books in my family’s house. (I think it’s a genetic thing. I have an uncle who collects statues of dragons.)
My history with books, and with reading, and with education all were starkly different than that of the kids I was working with on Time-to-Read. Where my family clung to the underbelly of the Middle Class, the families of these kids reached for it in vain. Where I was a white boy in a white-dominated society, these kids were not. Where I had loved to read from a very young age, these kids struggled with it. By the end of the year, I felt like my efforts had been for naught. Their reading skills seemed no better by the end of the year than they had at the start. I felt like a failure.
I didn’t participate in the Time-to-Read program a second year. Partly, I was dismayed by my apparent failure to have a positive impact on these kids’ lives. Partly, I was profoundly uncomfortable being confronted with the stark truth of the twin liabilities of race and class: of being the “wrong” race or of the “wrong” class. I thought I understood what it was to be poor, but I began to suspect that I did not really understand it at all. Today, I wish I could go back, and find some way, any way, to help those kids improve their reading skills. What a difference that could have made, if I’d done a better job?
I was reading in Parenting magazine recently (which my wife and I now subscribe to) that reading skills are perhaps the single most important indicator of future success. Literacy changes everything. It really isn’t hyperbole. Reading has made me who I am. I love to write because I love to read. And now that I write a blog, it’s hard to express just how much I appreciate my readers.
Reading will continue to be important – in my life, and in the life of my children. I already spend time reading to my B.T., my as-yet-unborn child. Not every night, unfortunately, yet. It’s a habit I need to get into. But every few nights, we pick one of the children’s books we’ve begun collecting off the shelf and I read to him. As time goes on, I hope to make reading to my children at night, before going to bed, a regular part of the evening ritual. Because it matters.
Perhaps that’s a long, rambling post. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about, lately. I hope you’ll promote literacy in whatever neck of the woods you find yourself.