July 23, 2015 Leave a comment
Kearney, Nebraska, is an old Oregon Trail town on the Platte River. On the west edge of town a replica of a covered wagon used to mark the halfway point between Boston and San Francisco. I don’t know if that’s true, but it was part of the local lore when I was in kindergarten and first grade.
The first house where my family lived in Kearney (1950―I was 5, my brother was 7, and my sister was about to be born) was a brick two-story duplex on a main street in town, a street with a “parkway” down the center.
I know the duplex is not a product of my “re-remembering” because somewhere I have a photo of my brother and me sitting on the front steps holding our newborn sister. My best friend then was Mary Martin (!) who lived down the street and whose older (much older) sister Coleen became my first grade teacher.
Somewhere, perhaps across the street from our duplex home, perhaps not, was a grand Romanesque-Revival schoolhouse where I went to first grade. If the photo above is not of that school, Kearney had at least two schools built in that architectural style. My memory from ages 5 and 6 is spotty but vivid.
After my sister was born, we moved to the “new house” out on the edge of town on 12th Avenue.
One of my clearest memories is of having pink-eye when I was in first grade and just beginning to learn to read. I remember it because my dad and I had pink-eye at the same time, and we were quarantined in the bedroom my brother and I shared. I don’t remember the actual physical arrangements except that we were together in that room for a couple of days.
Dad and I were supposed to be careful how we used our eyes (window blinds were closed to keep out bright sunlight). Reading was forbidden. One of the reasons I remember the experience so clearly is it’s one of the few times I was aware my dad was breaking rules. He could not then―or at any time in his life―have gone for 24 or 48 hours without reading a book.
Dad gave me one of his books to “read.” I remember clearly working my way through the book and finding words I knew from our Dick and Jane books at school. Then my dad read aloud from the book following the words with his finger for me to watch.
I don’t know how advanced our learning process at school was by that time, but I know without doubt that it was Dad’s showing me how he read that explained to me the mystery of reading. I may have learned words and eye movements at school, but Dad made sense of the process. Suddenly I was the best reader in my class.
These days, some 65 years later, I tutor young men, university student athletes, for the most part members of the football team. I tutor them in college writing. They need tutoring almost desperately. We chat. Eventually I ask all of them the same questions, beginning with, “Were there books in your house when you were growing up? Did you ever see your dad reading a book?”
With (what is to me astounding) regularity the answer to those questions is, “No,” for whatever reason, often beginning with not living with their fathers.
I’m no sociologist or neurologist or specialist in early childhood education, but I think I can say without anyone’s ability to question my observation that a boy who never sees his father reading a book is almost certain to be baffled by the idea, the process, of reading.
And the brain of a kid who is baffled by reading cannot develop an understanding of the thought processes associated with reading―memory of details, understanding of concepts, basic knowledge of information useful to functioning in our society.
I’m not going to complicate my thinking here by including the world of electronic gadgets and cyberspace. I can’t comprehend all of that.
Who are the boys who never see their dads reading?
Kids from the less-than-affluent communities of our country, I should think, although I don’t know that scientifically.
Kids who grow up in Owsley County, Kentucky, for example.
I’ll say it bluntly. These kids have no chance.
Don’t tell me I’m a bleeding-heart liberal or something. Don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Unless you have sociological/scientific proof I’m wrong, don’t bother me.
The lucky ones of these kids find something they can do that doesn’t require a family background of reading books, something such as sports, to help them out of the quagmire of lack of education. But my guess is most of them can do little else than perpetuate a culture of kids who never see their dads read a book.
This has nothing to do with intelligence or race or “hard work” or any of those other scapegoats we want to blame. It has only to do with our failure to find a way to break this cycle.
Anyone who might be reading this knows full well we have overwhelmingly trapped certain “ethnic groups” in this cycle. Is that because of racism? Xenophobia? Classism?
That doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we stop blaming the victims―least of all the fathers―and either teach fathers to read or find another way to do for these kids what my dad did for me.
Everyone knows this―I’m not saying anything new. I’m saying it because I don’t have many years left to see/help it happen, and my heart breaks for the kids I tutor.
“From Citizen, VI” [My brothers are notorious], by Claudia Rankine
My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget that we are named. What is that memory?
The days of our childhood together were steep steps into a collapsing mind. It looked like we rescued ourselves, were rescued. Then there are these days, each day of our adult lives. They will never forget our way through, these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—
Your hearts are broken. This is not a secret though there are secrets. And as yet I do not understand how my own sorrow has turned into my brothers’ hearts. The hearts of my brothers are broken. If I knew another way to be, I would call up a brother, I would hear myself saying, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—
On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call.
If I called I’d say good-bye before I broke the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up. Don’t hang up. My brother hangs up though he is there. I keep talking. The talk keeps him there. The sky is blue, kind of blue. The day is hot. Is it cold? Are you cold? It does get cool. Is it cool? Are you cool?
My brother is completed by sky. The sky is his silence. Eventually, he says, it is raining. It is raining down. It was raining. It stopped raining. It is raining down. He won’t hang up. He’s there, he’s there but he’s hung up though he is there. Good-bye, I say. I break the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up, don’t hang up. Wait with me. Wait with me though the waiting might be the call of good-byes.
Born: 1963, Kingston, Jamaica
Awards: NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry
Education: Williams College, Columbia University