Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Children! Listen Up!

If I could teach them but one thing…
by Charlie Leck

How very much I would like to be a wizard at inspiring and uplifting children. If I could do it, I would ask to speak with my daughter’s 7th grade class in that school in Harlem. She teaches there on assignment from Teach for America, a quite extraordinary organization that recruits highly motivated and successful students from America’s top universities and colleges.
I would tell them that books could be the most important element in their lives and that learning to read them well would be an open door to extraordinary success for each of them.

When I was a wee lad, a cousin of mine, actually two years younger than I, taught me the importance of reading well. She hammered home the idea that anyone who can read well can learn anything – that there are no barriers or impediments that the good reader cannot overcome. It is probably the single most important gift anyone ever gave me; for, after that, I concentrated with all my might on honing my reading skills. I became so acquisitive that I often drove my parents crazy with my questions.

I read vociferously. The more I read, the more I enjoyed it. The more I read, the better I got at it. I learned to never pass over a word I didn’t understand [such as acquisitive, learning that there is an element of greed to its meaning]. The dictionary was my constant companion. Reading literature became an astonishing pleasure for me. Books were ubiquitous! My parents, far from moneyed people, never objected to purchasing them for me.

In college, I ran into two wonderful professors who sharpened my reading even further. One taught me to read fiction with more understanding and purpose; the other taught me how to dissect non-fiction into its presuppositions, thesis and argument. Again, quite spectacular gifts that would last me a life time!

In this modern era, my wife goes through far more books than I because she wanders about listening to them on her iPod – driving her car, working with her animals, cleaning the house and walking the dog. She listens to book after book, after book. I consider it cheating.

My love for picking up a well bound book – one that is neatly designed and uses lovely typefaces – is one of my tastiest adventures. I love the feel of a book in my hand. I love the thrill of turning the pages and watching the book diminish in size before my eyes. It is easy to go back and reread a particularly good or difficult paragraph when one has a book in one’s hand. It is difficult to reach for a dictionary while one is driving down the freeway. Yet, I admire my wife for the sheer volume of books she consumes in the time that I work my way through one of them.

I am now finishing up David McCullough’s wonderful book, Truman (given to me for my birthday by the daughter who teaches that 7th grade class). McCullough is an extraordinary historian. Thank goodness, for me, that he is also an exceptional writer. The words in his sentences flow beautifully and mix together to make wonderful and compelling stories. He makes it simple for the reader to see where he is going and each chapter builds to a climax that is nearly like fiction.

Many years ago, when I was about the age of my daughter’s students, my sweet cousin put a copy of The Old Man and the Sea in my hands and virtually begged me to read it slowly and enjoyably. She taught me how to keep a dictionary nearby and how to use it. Oh, how old Santiago became such a hero of mine. How compelling was his emotional experience upon the sea! How victorious Santiago was in defeat!

This classic by Hemingway is a small, short book – more a novella than a novel – such a perfect size to start out with as a youngster. I remember running to my father to tell him all about this great fisherman. It led to hours of conversation with him about his own days of fishing upon the sea. My mother was so excited about the joy she saw in my eyes that, from then on, she made sure there were good books within my reach. So ironic that, at the closing of her life, I would sit by her bedside and read aloud to her to ease her pain and help her get through her awful days more peacefully.

My daughter just successfully completed a fund raising drive that raised enough money to order a lot of wonderful books for her young readers. Of course, when I saw the purpose of the fund raiser, I jumped all over it and made my contribution. Quite uncontrollably, I asked her siblings to chip in funds and I also sent information about the drive to some of my dear friends. I cannot thank all of them enough for being so generous.

Now, if only I could inspire those boys and girls to become one with those books and to explore the adventures that await them within those pages.

It is so pleasurable to be surrounded constantly by my friends. Here in my writing loft I have, all around me, shelves and shelves of wonderful, exciting books. Even at my age I am constantly learning new things from them. How I would like to share this feeling -- this excitement -- with my daughter's students.

Comment from Fred

thank you for today's blog...you've reminded me that the old man is my most ever favorite book. i hardly ever re-read a book...there have only been a few...i never tire of the old man.... and it's the only book that i ever read aloud...and i don't no why, but hearing the words, they rang like poetry, and i loved doing it.

i read my son to sleep, some nights, with the poetry of robert service, and i know he went off dreaming of cold wind and warm fires with dan mcgrew and sam mcgee. all good poetry deserves to be read aloud and to someone you love.

and finally, you reminded me of the days and weeks i spent reading zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. i didn't just read it...and i don't remember if it came before or after my first bike...but it ignited my love for ... and gave life to...hondas of a certain age and feel. and it led me on many bike trips following him...riding next to pirsig (as it were) on the same roads (really) and feeling the same dry wind and tasting the air and rain and leaves he tasted. and pirsig also shared his two mind journeys...first his relationship with his son and then his journey of madness and the search for himself. what a gift.

that was nice to think about...and thanks also for the invite last week to help with your daughter's project...there are very few places now a days where i choose to share my limited resources, but that invite joined kiva and oboma...and yesterday i got an email that the effort was successful and thanks...and thanks to you.

Fred J. Kamm
Wheat Ridge, CO

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