I recently started volunteering as a reading tutor in a local elementary school in my neighborhood. This, like nearly every aspect of life in the U.S. at the end of the 21st century, is (still) complicated by race and class.
While it’s a really diverse city, D.C. is rapidly gentrifying as wealthier, young professionals give up the commute and now want to live in the city. My neighborhood is a prime example. There are abandoned and run down houses just a few blocks away from where the construction crews are building brand new luxury condos. I live in one and I’m watching the neighborhood transition with mixed feelings, complicated by my own role in the process.
90-95% of the students at the school are on free or reduced price lunch. Many come from a notoriously dangerous housing complex nearby which was in the news this past year for drive-by shootings. As the principal of the school was giving his welcome speech he said many of these kids are traumatized. Life is unpredictable for them, adults often unreliable and/or uninterested.
And that’s the connection. I know what it feels like to feel like you’re growing up alone and that no one cares about what happens to you. I can relate to that. And you know what saved me?
Reading was my Get Out of Jail Free card. I was trapped in a tiny world, had few options in front of me and my family wasn’t able to support or guide me when I was young. I was on my own. But I loved reading, probably because it was an escape from that world.
There are a million miles between me and the kids in that school, different race, different background, way different income levels, but I’m really hoping that we can connect through reading. Because of reading I was able to break out of that tiny, insulated world I grew up in and go on to do things no one in my family had ever done before. All because of books. All because of reading. My hope is that it will have the same effect for these kids.
Remember those old PSAs that used to come on Saturday morning cartoons: Reading Is Fundamental? It is. It really, really is.