Colbert King: “Illiteracy is D.C.’s biggest challenge…. Without readers, there’s no hope for the District.”
Indeed; But so is “weak (far below grade level) literacy”. And, where is the outrage, the sense of urgency? Frederick Douglass said it best in his autobiography; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave:
“The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.”
Yes, the ability to read, and reading, opens a space in us that is forever open. When we read we are placed in a place, that is resistant to the confined space created by any who would under-expect our potential, or undermine our high expectations for ourselves. Reading invites that “anything good is possible” into our hearts. The mind can’t be held captive; can’t be designated to the back seat of the #47% bus. As a poor kid growing up in some very dangerous Brooklyn streets; I spent endless hours in the demilitarize zone of the Brooklyn Public Library. Once safely in the warm embrace of those bookshelves; I could travel anywhere in the world; yes, time travel to the past or the future; I could read and imagine a different world other than my own; and I could imagine myself being something and somebody special in that world. And when I left that temple of hope, I strategically picked the check-out clerk who I knew would allow me to go over the Book-lending maximum (Oh Bless you, wherever you are:-) For I was the reading version of the “young and the restless”, If I ran out of books to read. I did not give much thought then (what adolescent would) as to why so many other kids my age did not see the transcending-transformational joy and power of reading. Later when I pursued education as career I realized that for many young people their experience with reading was/is the opposite of my own. Reading for them is not immersing and relaxing yourself in language; it is more like being lost, and struggling to learn a “second foreign language”. Those strange figures and symbols, called words, that were printed on the page were not your friend; they were rather, some type of cruel unsolvable puzzle. Reading produced a source of dread and embarrassment when they were called upon to read aloud in class. I on the other hand could not wait to read aloud in class; my struggle was to “slow-down”, as I was reading for public consumption. I loved my super-mastery powers to be able to pronounce “hard words”; to soar fearlessly over the text. I was a Muhammad Ali of reading for; I could float over sentences, and sting difficult words like a bee. And at the end of my reading presentation, the ever expected and received: “Good job, Michael”; from the teacher. At that time I had no idea who Frederick Douglass was, or anything about his book. But when reading I knew I felt proud, and empowered. It was like being poor and having a lot of money in your pocket. One of my proudest moments in the power of reading was when Ms. Shapiro, my fourth grade teacher put a newly arrived to class student named Juan in the seat next to me. Juan had just arrived half-way into the school year from Puerto Rico. Back then there were no ESL programs; and so my teacher called me to her desk and said: “Michael, I want you to help Juan when we have reading time, he is just learning to speak English”. It was one of those kind acts, and kind of acts that positively mark you for life. You would think I had just won an Academy Award, an Oscar, or the Nobel Peace Prize for Reading. I took on the task of helping Juan with his reading like it was a paying job. I helped him during class, before class, after-class, in the school yard, in the lunch room. I was determined, and took it on as a personal mission that Juan and I would not go on to the 5th grade, and he was not able to read. And of course, no self-respecting 4th grader back then wanted to disappoint their teacher; or fail at an esteem boosting honorable appointment. Naturally, the teacher did not tell me Juan’s end of year reading score; and I didn’t ask. But it seem to me that by all of my knowledgeable and objective 4th grade criteria Juan had greatly improved in his reading. In any event we went on to the 5th grade; and Juan latter united with me in a gifted and talented middle school program; where he was one of the top readers. Over the years I have watched the pained look of high school students who beg with their eyes that you don’t call on them to read out loud, either something on the board, or in a book. I have known brilliant 9th grade students who are able to master Biology through visual picture and auditory methods; because they can’t read the text book. I have read the “elementary level” translations of the lesson notes in their notebook (This is actually a smart decision: why take class notes that you can’t latter read). They very often do well because the “language” of science is essentially a new language for everyone in the class; but good readers have an advantage; for example they can read and/or already familiar with the word “diversity”, or they have seen “di” in front of other words they knew from other readings, and so putting “Bio” in front of it does not stretch their understanding. Finally, they have had a lot of reading practice where they utilized “context clues” to decipher word meaning; thus, they can move quickly on to the next phrase. The “poor” reading student can do well (in fact we proved in Brooklyn that you can actually teach a 3rd or 4th grader to master high school Biology by minimizing the text book, and teaching it like foreign language acquisition) in science, but they can’t ever do their best. And, You are left to wonder; wow, what if this kid could read, and study the text book! Good reading skills are essential to all subject areas; a poor test score in mathematics, could in part be due to the inability to “read and understand the question”. It is not that students don’t know the algorithm (the way to solve the problem); they simply don’t know what they are being asked to do.
Reading ability in the 1800’s was political; and in the year 2013 it is still political. You ever think of what would happen if we taught all children to read? If we did not have a small group of winners (good-readers), and a larger group of those who are lost (non-readers)? The problem then is; what do you do with so many aspiring young people who are prepared to enter higher education and/or the workforce? How could our economy cope with high school graduation rates that exceeded 60%(and what if 100% of that 60% really graduated by truly meeting 12th grade literacy standards!) What we need Mr. King is a militant-serious-take no prisoners; lobby/advocacy group to fight for these kids. A real, and not rhetorical educational civil/human rights movement. Time, in this situation is not an ally. Our public schools are quickly becoming the feeding grounds for venture capitalist. “Play-pens” for inexperienced ghetto adventurist cashing big checks, while waiting out a slow economy. The non- reading children of color, the children of the poor, of any color are being relegated to a permanent underclass, which will only serve to feed the social service and criminal justice systems. It is a new twist on a “slave narrative” that removes opportunity by crippling the ability; eliminates potentiality by reading skills denial.. It is a cruel reversal of the Douglass experience. We need no slave masters, no laws prohibiting the teaching of slaves to read; no chains, no slave quarters, just send them to school.