People often ask me what I’m reading, especially in the summer. I have wishlists, both online and in notebooks, and there are stacks of books on the floor and over-filled bookcases at home. It’s easy to pick, pull, and put back title after title; fortunately, over the years, I’ve become a fast reader so the picking and putting back happens often, and it’s pleasurable. I’m sure none of this is any different from any of you, but I’m particularly proud of my small library, not necessarily the titles on the shelves, but simply for having one.
In high school, back in Arizona, the school administrators showed the students “statistics” about reading and the value of education with a “step forward” exercise that left a mark on me, a mark that was once a pretty embarrassing scar.
It was a bright hot day in my senior year; we had just moved into a new school and our class would be the first to march across the lush green football field at graduation. But first, the seniors were taken out to that field and instructed to form a long line at one end with the principal and a few teachers at the other. With a bullhorn, one of the teachers began to shout instructions: “If you are not the first person in your family to graduate from high school, take one step forward.” Odd sentence. Did they mean “if you are”? The students looked around, confused, and the teacher repeated, this time emphasizing the “not”. Some kids stepped forward, some didn’t. The next piece of instruction was, “If your parents went to college, take one step forward.” Many of the students from in-town stepped forward. And then, “If your parents went to graduate school, step forward,” and so on.
Soon a pattern emerged. It was now apparent what the staff were trying to do. An elite few had made it firmly to the end zone, many students floated around the middle of the field, and a lot remained sheepishly near the one yard line. The kids at the end zone, the ones that had taken the most steps, were mostly white, and the majority of the rest of us were black or brown. I stood closer to my brown brethren, of course, because my parents hadn’t gone to college (yet), but this fact didn’t bother me. I would change that statistic; I would take that step.
What shamed me greatly was this particular instruction: “If your family has more than 50 books in your home, take one step forward.” Did magazines and crossword puzzle books count? My mother had a lot of those. Of course, I knew the answer was no, and I couldn’t take a step. Suddenly, my educational and literacy differences struck me with a blow. Worst of all, my classmates in advanced English, the best and brightest of our high school, could see me standing in the same spot as before. Did they think I had an illiterate childhood? Did they wonder if my parents could read? Did they think me a fraud?
I hated the administrators for putting us through that exercise that day, for revealing unknown truths about me, my family, and our relationship with books. I had taken a few more steps than many of the other kids that rode my bus from out of town; I stepped forward when asked, “If you plan to go to college,” “If you’ve applied,” and “If you’ve received any admissions letters.” Not many more steps though. So there I stood, teetering between the non-starters and the slightly mobile, feeling so far away from my classmates standing on the sunny horizon.
I have taken many steps forward since that day. I will take many more still. And if I ever have children and if they’re ever put through an exercise meant to show the importance of education and literacy like the “Step Forward or Be Damned” exercise of my youth, I can be assured that my children will step forward many times. They will know we have books at home. They will know how to read, write, and talk about them. And they will know the glory of the view on that horizon.