December 22, 2011 Leave a comment
Kirkwood, New Jersey was a quiet kind of place when I was a kid. My Grandparents’ house in particular–where I spent a lot of time as a young person–seemed to actively contain a piece of the good old days. The backdoor was always open and neighbors and friends regularly stopped by to sit around the kitchen table and chat, while enjoying a glass (or two or three) of my Grandmom’s famous ice-tea. It was a great place to eavesdrop or spend hours lounging around and reading books. Loads and loads of books.
Neither of my Grandparents were bookworms by any stretch. My Grandfather had to leave school to work and help support his family when he was in third grade. He spent most of his life completely illiterate but somehow, at some point–though no one talks about this–he learned how to read. At least, I think he did…he looked at the newspaper every day as far as I can remember. My Grandmom, who would sit down once a week to write a letter to her dear friend in Florida, liked leafing through catalogues, and she told great stories, but I never once saw her with a book. Yet somehow, through the grace of good teachers and a well-stocked community library, I was never without books. Reading was my refuge, it connected me to a world outside my grandparents’ home and rescued me from the quiet and drilling boredom of the day-to-day humdrum-miness.
When I was a teenager, I would perch myself on a stool, scooted up alongside my grandfather, and read to him from some of my books. He especially got a kick out of Thoreau. Once, building on our connection through reading, my grandfather fished out a mysterious key that was hidden somewhere in my Grandparents’ bedroom (he was super stealth about the entire operation) and took me to the basement–it was a very exciting adventure! There, he unlocked the giant, dusty trunk that we grandkids were always spying around with wonder and curiosity. It was filled to the top with dusty books. This was my grandfather’s treasure. It was locked up and stashed in his basement for years. And although he had the key to the trunk…he was missing the more important key. He didn’t know how to read. Yet, he wanted me to have his cache of untouched riches.
Reading is Fundamental. Imagine receiving a letter in the mail and having absolutely no idea what it means. Imagine being an illiterate parent of school-aged children…letters from teachers, homework assignments, report cards…all completely indecipherable. Think for a minute about the constant sense of isolation, shame, and disconnection. Those of you who have traveled to foreign countries whose language you are unfamiliar with may have experienced–in small measure–what it means to be illiterate. (I’ll never forget the frustration of standing in a bookstore in Tokyo, surrounded by thousands of books I couldn’t read!)
I have never been a fan of the ‘passing the buck’ mentality. It’s a behavior that, in my opinion, demonstrates lack of courage, conviction, and character. (I got carried away with C-words for a minute!) Passing an illiterate kid through a school system represents a form of passing the buck that is not only pitiful but downright criminal. Who will assume the responsibility being shirked by so many “educators” and the community at large? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that children–and illiterate adults–learn to read?
Failing schools, in my opinion, belong to failing communities. While policy makers, administrators, teachers, parents and everyone else stand in a circle pointing fingers and passing the buck, kids are being pushed into the periphery and forgotten. Who will save our kids from a dismal life marked by isolation, dead-end jobs or chronic unemployment, and a far-too-high vulnerability to being tricked? It is time to STOP pointing the finger, passing the buck, and abandoning the kids. It is time to reach out and teach, share resources, and partner with others in the community to ensure that EVERYONE can read (write, think, analyze, reason…).
I’m not one to strike a nationalist note–because I believe it’s more important to cooperate and collaborate in peaceful and creative ways at the local and global levels than it is to be “number one.” But, seriously, it is absolutely unconscionable that a country as resource-rich as the United States is failing–across the board–to provide all children with a decent education. We are EACH responsible for taking action. I am infuriated that teachers are “promoting” (as my grandmother used to say) illiterate students to the next grade level. I am beside myself that school administrators are complicit in this crime. I am outraged that policy makers continue to play politics and create conditions that intensify the tendency to shift blame and point fingers. I am ASHAMED that so many members of the community are simply looking the other way.
Imagine what we could accomplish if each of us dedicated one hour a week to support a student in need. Don’t just imagine, take action. “‘No excuses’ is not just for teachers.”
If you are already taking action to support authentic teaching and learning in your community, please share your work here. Are you working for an informal education program, mentoring a young person, volunteering at a local school, engaging local government and working for positive reforms? Let us know! The more we can connect, collectively brainstorm, and collaborate, the more likely we are to establish robust partnerships that will facilitate real and positive change.
(Note: I deliberately capitalize “Grandparents” as an expression of respect for Lillian and Duke.)