The Right to Read

The Rochester Democrat-Chronicle recently published a story about a 13 year-old African-American student who’s being ostracized for writing an essay about Frederick Douglass, critical of the educational system.  The white educational system.  According to the Democrat-Chronice about 75 percent of her classmates would not be able to read the newspaper’s account of her tribulations.

The Rochester Democrat-Chronicle:  When school officials handed out copies of The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, they said they hoped students would connect with the abolitionist’s struggle learning to read at a time when African-Americans were largely prohibited from becoming literate.

A few things need to be taken into account.  First and foremost is the First Amendment, which applies as much to black 13 year olds as it does to Ivory Tower scholars.  Second, the young lady is 13 years old.  Pubescent teenagers are only just learning to express their emotions.  Judgment will come later.  This is just as true of 13 year olds in a white exurb as it is for an inner city 13 year old.

She makes note of her crowded classroom.  She’s apparently bright and passionate; a smaller classroom would probably suit her better, but her passion has now been exciting against the appalling illiteracy in city schools.  One recommendation would be for her to start tutoring younger students.  That’s where the problem really begins.  If it isn’t solved by the second or third grade, only a miracle will help a classroom full of hormonally-challenged seventh graders.

As for the teachers, why should they be surprised?  What kind of reading material do the students receive?  I’ve seen for myself.  Their libraries (such as they are) are filled with literature written for white children, with white characters mostly leading happy lives (until they become teenagers).  What passes for black children’s literature are grim dramas about the struggle against slavery and for civil rights. 

Helping my company distribute books for Read for America, I watched the children gravitate towards the happier, white children’s literature.  A few of them picked up the historical African-American experience – but not many.  The books were donated by white employees, so it was no surprise that the books would be about white people.  Where are the adventure stories for black children?  Where are the black children going on time travel trips?  Venturing into outer space?  Solving mysteries?  No wonder the black kids don’t want to read.

The teachers, for their part, ought to have had a thicker skin than to take offense at the essay of a 13 year old.  Instead, they should have used it as a teachable moment and corrected her gently, shown her that the teachers do care that the children learn to read.  They shouldn’t expect a 13 year-old to understand the challenges of teaching in inner city school, especially at the middle school level (all children at that age are difficult to teach), about children entering kindergarten or first grade not as prepared as their white counterparts, coming from single family homes, and drug and crime-infested neighborhoods.

That’s the reason charter schools are popping up in inner cities across the country.  It’s a solution for the best students, but still leaves students like Jada, a good student but not a star, in quandary.  They’re left in the great melting pot of illiteracy and chaos, where little discipline is practiced or achievable.

Education experts need to get off their high horses about “cultural differences.”  There certainly are cultural differences and those differences are impeding the students’ ability (and desire) to read.  First, you need better literature for the children, one that erases those cultural differences and treats just like everybody else, including their white counterparts.  Give them their share of fun, adventurous, heroic stories.  Enough with slavery and civil rights already.  You don’t realize what a downer it is to kids that age.  Reading (like music) should be a pleasure, not a chore.

You experts know well enough there are cultural differences, or you wouldn’t have organized Head Start.  Good reading habits begin at home, at an early age.  The children have to be taught early on how to focus and concentrate.  Seventh grade is hardly the time to be teaching kids to avoid distractions.  They also have to be taught how reading applies to the real world.  In addition, they need to be taught good study habits.  The best students should be publicly rewarded and those falling behind encouraged to try harder.

When Jada is older, perhaps she’ll realize why there aren’t more black teachers.  It’s not lack of ability, necessarily; it’s the numbers.  If African-Americans are only 13 percent of the population and only a small percentage of that population becomes teachers (and given the deplorable condition of the schools, it’s no wonder there aren’t more), you’re not going to have many black teachers.

The white teachers, despite what Jada might think, go into the profession of teaching in the inner cities with good intentions.  But within five years, they find themselves defeated by the poverty and recessed skills of their charges, burnt out by the lack of discipline of their students, the fighting in the halls, the gang wars, and the drugs, and depressed by the general gloom of the conditions of the schools and neighborhoods.

Politics adds to the misery.  It is not the Conservatives who want to discourage black children from learning to read; it’s the Liberals.  It’s the Liberals who hand them those gloomy Black history books, guaranteed to foster resentment, anger and hatred, and provide them with nothing else.  It’s the Liberals who want to keep them in a dependent state because angry, discontented students became angry, discontented voters looking for someone to blame.  It’s the Liberal Marxist agenda that’s taught in those schools.  The result is Obama.

When I was in school, we were forced to read the works of Ring Lardner, Jr., and other black-listed authors.  I knew a little about the Blacklist, but not much.  What I did know was that they were the most boring, dreadfully grim stories I’d ever read.  I hated them.  Fortunately, my mother was friends with schoolteachers and librarians in more affluent, Conservative school districts in Westchester County.  They would give us discarded books and my father would take us to the local library once a week where we could select more entertaining literature.

Jada may be standing up against the wrong enemy, but if she is standing up for literacy, good for her.  A group of us stood up against our Communist high school teacher when threw aside the U.S. History book to teach us the glories of communism.  Like Jada, we weren’t star students, but we gave all we had and took the red flag to defeat the red flag.  We figured if the guys on Iwo Jima could give their lives for freedom, we could sacrifice our grades.

Good luck to Jada – and to her teachers.  They’re all on a hard battleground.


Published in: on March 1, 2012 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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