Monday, February 24, 2014

My Reading Buddy

Charlie Leck made a point last week about our collective lack of outrage over the widening achievement gap between white students and students of color. In the process, he referred to efforts I make to even the playing field, one student at a time.

It took me a few days to sit down and write this because the attention embarrassed me. I have a very public persona when it comes to some things but I like to keep it low key when giving of myself to those in need. I subscribe to the wisdom of the Jewish rabbi and philosopher Maimonides whose 8 Levels of Giving opined that anonymous charitable giving with no expectation of recognition is among the most commendable. 

Nonetheless, Charlie threw down a gauntlet and I think it requires both public acknowledgment and advocacy on my part. A good basic education is the building block to everything else in life. If we turn our backs on whatever shortcomings exist in our educational system, we ("Royal 'we'") damn ourselves to creating a society in which more and more citizens cannot function independently and productively. The investment, now, in the education of our children, pays dividends for generations.

Here's how I know that to be true. One of my few vivid memories as a kindergarden and elementary school student is the recurring lecture I received from my father about the need to complete my homework in order to get a good education. Dad likened my early education to the laying the foundation of a wall that I would rely on all through my life. Because "New Math" was using brick imagery to teach us about base-10 arithmetic, the lectures hit home and have stayed with me. My young mind accepted that, unless I made the effort to learn while young and build on that, I was going to go through life with a crumbling wall built on a weak foundation.

For the last four school years, I've been volunteering once a week during the school year to work with second graders to firm up their bricks. "Everybody Wins", a reading mentoring program formerly affiliated with the Hennepin County Bar Association, attracts about 80 attorneys, judges, clerks  and court personnel each week to a school in North Minneapolis to help second grade students develop reading skills. The attorney who initially invited me to join the program explained that statistics show the need to develop reading proficiency by the end of second grade to avoid a subsequent lack of academic achievement and disaffection with the learning process. I haven't bothered to verify the studies. Based on four years of personal observation, the theory seems to make sense.

Which brings me to Darnell. As noted by Charlie in his blog, I have developed a close relationship with Darnell since we were "reading buddies" four years ago. When I started volunteering about three weeks into the school year, I kept bouncing around among various students, covering for volunteers who were absent that week. In about the fourth week of my participation, I was paired with Darnell. He protested, saying he wanted to stay with another volunteer. Darnell's teacher told me that the other volunteer had begged off working with Darnell, deciding that he was too needy and troubled.

I remember how, when the protest was lost, Darnell still hustled me into getting out of reading by feigning a stomach ache. I took him to the school nurse and watched him squirm while trying to keep a straight face when explaining why he was there. The next week I returned to Darnell's classroom and sat down with him, explaining that I was his only choice. I asked for a chance. I might have bribed him with candy. I can't remember when that started. 

Darnell read better than some of his peers, not as well as others. His biggest problem was a lack of interest. He read everything in a monotone and I would regularly reread passages aloud to him to show the importance of inflections in conveying the sense of story. It never seemed to matter and I felt like I was not making a lot of headway with my reluctant second-grader.

Then something remarkable happened. We were reading a book about a boy whose mother died. The child was referred to as an "orphan". I told Darnell that I was learning something new because I thought both parents had to pass on before someone was an "orphan". We looked it up and found that the book's use of the term was accurate. The book gave us the opportunity to talk about death. Darnell's protests and his lack of interest were manifestations of the 7 year-old's inability to deal with the death of his mother 8 months earlier, when he was a first grader. It gave me the opportunity to tell Darnell how much we had in common. We both had mothers who were from Chicago who had died from cancer when they were young. We were both orphans. He could not believe that someone else shared his experience.

From that moment on, we bonded. He looked forward to our Wednesday sessions (probably as much for the candy as anything). We would read and we would talk. He became more enthusiastic about learning and, by Spring, when I wrote a short story for him about the farm animals and Deb's horse Oliver, he was hooked. 

The reading program prohibits outside contact with the students, but I worked with the school and the aunt who was raising Darnell to get permission to maintain our relationship after the school year. I received a meaningful education in the difference volunteers make in the lives of the students when, a year after we met, out and about on one of our "Darnell Days", an elderly woman in a restaurant asked Darnell how he and I had met. 

"We both had mothers from Chicago who died when they were young. We're both orphans."

His aunt, a saint, mixes love and discipline as she raises her sister's children with her own. Darnell has gone on to become an "Academic All Star". He gets A's and B's on his report cards.  He is on the Student Council in Vadnais Heights Elementary, a great athlete, polite and funny. 

Last year, after he was grounded for participating in some minor shenanigans with his older cousins, we had a talk about making good choices. He knew that he had done wrong, but didn't know how to say "no" to his cousins. Referring to the WWJD bracelets that had become popular, I told him that in the future he should stop and ask himself "what would Sam do?" WWSD became our code. 

This weekend, I asked him if he had needed to rely on WWSD. In fact, he had. Faced with a tough problem in math, he realized he could use the calculator on his phone to arrive at an answer. But he told me he asked himself "what would Sam do" and worked it out on paper instead.

Darnell's foundation is strong; his brick wall is getting higher and higher. He now wants to be a lawyer rather than a football player when he grows up. Obviously, there's improvements yet to be made.

The pride I take in Darnell's maturing sustains me as I drive to Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School every Wednesday and take on another year of challenge. After my time with Darnell, I had a year with three students, another year with one and this year with two. 

Everybody Wins is no longer subsidized by the Bar Association. The volunteers chip in to cover school bus transportation costs for the weekly round trip from the Hennepin County Government Center. Judge Allan Oleisky, who administers the program, covers the shortfall out of his own pocket. I'm in the process of setting up a formal 501(c)(3) in order to be able to solicit a few thousand dollars from local foundations that support educational endeavors. 

We have no choice but to keep the program going. There are a lot of Darnells out there. Reaching 150 students at one school for a year, through the efforts of one group of volunteers once a week, stands as a strong declaration that we are not going to allow a collapse of our public school system as it strives to serve populations of color.

Charlie was right. It is up to all of us to make, and act upon, a similar declaration. There are a number of reading mentoring programs in our community. Search online for "Minneapolis Reading Mentoring Programs" and Google will provide you with 1,370,000 results in 0.39 seconds. Your mentoring may never give you the pride and satisfaction I enjoy as I watch Darnell mature from a troubled, challenged second-grader to a Student Council officer and Academic All Star, but, more importantly, it might.


Charles Leck said...

I have tears in my eyes. Darnell has a great and important friend. Thanks, Sam, for that and for your terribly good and important friendship with me as well.

oldman.denver said...

You and I have met only a couple of times through Charlie. But I've followed you on FB and through this blog...
I'm so proud to know you and to watch what one man can do to alter society.
I've been watching you and Darnell since we met...Good job, Sam.