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Passing on the Mystery of the Written Word

‘Dear Reader,” the letter began. It was from the First Street Elementary School and it was signed by Betty Morin, principal.

It invited me to take part in something called a “read-in.” About 35 people from “all walks of life” would each spend one period reading a book of their own choice to one class.

“I’ve been an educator for 22 years,” Mrs. Morin said, “and agree with current research that all children have the capacity to succeed. However, many do not. First Street School’s 850-plus students must succeed. And that’s where you come in. . . . We need your help in promoting reading for leisure and personal improvement with a classroom of approximately 27 pupils.”

It was obviously a form letter. Still, I was on their list. That counted for something. Two days before the “read-in” I phoned the school and talked to Mrs. Morin.

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I wanted to be sure that I would read to an English-speaking class. She assured me that I would. She said there would be a parking place in back of the school and that the readers would meet in the library at 8:30 for coffee.

I realized that to get to a school in East Los Angeles at 8:30 in the morning I would have to go through downtown traffic at the rush hour. I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., dressed, had a light breakfast, and set out.

Avoiding the freeway, I took Main Street through downtown and turned east on 1st Street. All the traffic was coming the other way. The school was past the police station and past the library and just a block west of the Evergreen Cemetery. The stores were covered with graffiti.

A row of cars was parked on the asphalt playing ground. On either side of the gate large hand-lettered signs said, “Enter Here.” A young man motioned me through. Several students in blue T-shirts were waiting by the parked cars. Three of them led me to the library, in a one-story separate building.

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Several of my fellow readers were already assembled. I had a cup of tea. Just before we were each to go to our separate classrooms three third-grade students demonstrated their reading skills. They were Latinos. Taking turns, they read a fairy story, in English, with hardly a trace of Spanish accent.

Mrs. Morin said they had entered school speaking only Spanish. Like all other Spanish-speaking students, they started out taking basic instruction in Spanish, but had one hour of English every day, and instruction in art, music and physical education was in English. Whatever the system was called, it was obviously working.

A boy led me to my class. The teacher, Judy Markus-Knobel, and about 30 fifth-grade pupils were waiting with apprehensive patience. I introduced myself. I had chosen to read from one of my own books.

First I read a story about the day the peacock landed near the Dalton place across the canyon. I came to the word pterodactyl . “Do you know what pterodactyl means?” I asked them.

They chorused, “Yes!”

I felt secure. If they knew pterodactyl, they probably knew all my other words. I came to predatory . “Do you know what predatory ?” I asked. Again, they chorused “Yes!”

They didn’t roar with laughter when I thought they ought to, but I sensed that they were following me. And they were exquisitely polite.

Next I read a story about an injured cat we had taken in. Because of his ferocity, I had named him Genghis Khan. I asked them if they knew who Genghis Khan was. They had never heard of him.

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I was ready. I had looked him up the previous night in my encyclopedia. So I gave them a little sketch of Genghis Khan. I suspected that he was just bloodthirsty enough to interest them.

The Genghis Khan story began: “In our memories we tend to relate small events to larger events that occurred at the same time. Everyone remembers what he or she was doing when President Kennedy was shot.” Suddenly I realized that none of them had been born when Kennedy was shot.

I don’t know whether the read-in did any good, but somehow I feel that that school is on the right track.


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