The bell rang at Samuel Gompers Vocational High School. Students flooded the hallways. We made our way from one classroom to the next. Soon, I was in my seat, poised to learn. Our English teacher wore a suit and tie. Having served in the military during World War II, he earned a degree in education through the GI Bill. He was now teaching English at an all-boys high school in the South Bronx. He took the job but did not like teaching us. We were mostly “minority” students.
What Mr. Freed taught us that afternoon, more than half a century ago, is still alive in my head. For dual language learners without resources, like me, with no reading tradition at home, it proved to be yet another blow to our frazzled self-esteem. He sat in a chair, facing us. He leaned back. With folded hands behind the back of his head, he asked, “Does anyone know what the word conspicuous means?” We shrugged our shoulders, gave each other quizzical looks, made faces to show our total disconnect with what he was asking of us. He was not surprised.
He introduced the word with emotional coldness, devoid of any meaningful, real-life or cultural context that made sense to us. "Conspicuous" was in the dictionary. It was also in the vocabulary list of words that high school juniors were supposed to know. But he did not introduce it to make us smarter or to build our word power so we could become critical thinkers.
The word was simply parachuted into our class, by our teacher, as a ploy to remind us of our ignorance. Mr. Freed was sovereign, dominant and prestigious. He viewed us with disdain. He exposed our illiteracy that day. In his presence, we thought less of ourselves. We also learned to dislike reading. After all, in his class, books and complex words were used to belittle us, not to build us up. We were tracked for vocational work in factories. The message to us was clear: We were losers. That is how many students give up, fall behind and never catch up.
In my journey through life, I also met some caring, compassionate teachers. They taught me to value learning complex words. I learned that reading is the key to unleashing potential and have become an avid reader.
As studies on the impact of COVID-19 and summer learning losses are pointing at huge setbacks in reading and math for most students, I’m acutely aware of the need for a viable remedy.
How do we bridge this gap? Simply put, we have to cultivate a love of reading in our children by deliberately including it in our daily family rituals. In a recent email exchange with my nephew on why the COVID-19 crisis is the best time for reading, he wrote: “I wish I had a love for books as much as you do. I struggle to get through a read because I can’t seem to sit still. There always seems to be a need to be doing something else. Please share any tips you have to get over this.”
My advice: Read with a mission. Initially, I read to prove to culturally arrogant persons who thought little of me, that they were wrong. Reading is not just for enrichment. For me, it became an act of survival. By reading about how people, who had it tougher than me, bounced back, I learned to reject rejection, not myself. Personal self-determination requires nothing less. Reading about heroic leaders who struggled for social justice against great odds will lift your spirits.
Ask trusted friends to recommend books they think you will enjoy. Choose memoirs of people whose lives resonate with your own experience. You can see yourself in their narratives. Read aloud with the people you love. You’ll be amazed at the benefits that go far beyond cultivating the love of reading. This is a great way to stay focused and deepen relationships.
In this time of uncertainty and tremendous academic challenges in the lives of children and their families, become a conspicuous champion of reading! Cultivate this new passion with pride. It matters.