#14: Anti-Bribes

When I was a kid, I believed that reading could become more popular if the geeks had some slick advertising, beyond those Michael J. Fox “Read” posters or “The More You Know” segments and the B-rated acting on the Ad Council propaganda. Plaster a book cover on a NASCAAR or replace the beer advertisement at a ballpark. Make it trendy like Pogs and Slammers and ALF.

In college, I thought that the best idea involved banning books. Go Farenheit 451 and we’d have underground book clubs.  Ban them from schools and explain that ideas are dangerous and yet allow adults to walk into a shady bookstore with no windows.  Tell kids that they could own a book when they are twenty-one and watch the binge reading occur on college campuses.  Folks would brag rather than whine about their cram sessions.

I still cringe when I see reading programs.  When I go to the library (or as some neo-cons call it “the socialist book lending, anti-copyright collective”) I get angry at the free pizza coupons (lets trade in the joy of reading for a fried piece of dough) and the tickets to ball games and the levels of bribery teaching children that reading is a chore that must be conquered.  I smile every night when Christy reads Joel and Micah a chapter from The Chronicles of Narnia and I can grow cynical about how school will test away their love of literature.

These suspicions are confirmed when I ask my students to bring in a book from home and only seven have a book.  In their defense, I ask them rather than demand it, because the last thing I’m doing is turning a novel into fried dough before they’ve begun the reading process.

On some level, I understand.  I’ve been to many homes in the area that have no books.  I realize that it’s rare for a child to walk in a hundred ten degree heat to a library.  (They’d do it if books were banned, though) Still, I grow frustrated.  If it were a power saw, I might get a few students to bring one in and yet words are far more powerful than a saw so in my twisted teacher logic, I expect complete compliance among students.

I do a hard sell of my favorite memoirs.  It’s not on purpose, but my passion for a well-crafted autobiography turns me into an Amway-meets-Shamwow sales rep. The students meet my passion with a wall of apathy that lasts through their entire drill-and-kill district-mandated standardized math test.  It turns out I’m a better teacher than marketer. I begin to feel a strange kinship with the Ad Council people who try really hard.

When it’s over, a student walks up to my bookshelf and grabs five Jerry Spinelli books.  “Look, I know reading sucks, but these books are different,” he informs his friends and they begin to read.  Another student quietly asks if he can read A Place to Stand and the way he whispers it makes me feel like I’m a crack dealer and I begin to wonder if this is something he has to do every year – pretend he doesn’t care when he actually loves reading – or if this is something new. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.  He’s reading a thought-provoking memoir because he could relate to the main character and even though I watch him trip over the language, he continues . . . at least for now.

When we walk to lunch, another student asks me if I had ever read Noam Chomsky and unlike the quiet reader, he wants a loud, grown-up conversation, because he’s thirsting to understand the politics of colonialism and to find out if it’s somehow connected to his own schooling.  He asks if we’ve shifted toward Assimilation Schools and I get the sense that he’s not looking so much for an answer as he is a space for his questions.

Later, as we read part of Barefoot Heart, the students passionately debate whether the character was naive as a child or simply content with her poverty.  It’s a story that speaks loudly to their lives and to the unspoken climate of SB1070.  It turns out the bribery in all its fried-dough glory has not killed the love of reading.  The anti-nerd youth culture hasn’t censored the power of the narrative.  It’s alive, because of the power of story and the way that it speaks truth into our lives.

I have friends who are really into unschooling. Some of them for social reasons, other for spiritual ones and still others because it’s trendy like listening to vinyl records and crocheting a hat and raising chickens in your back yard.  They recite to me the complaints of the educational factory and I concur each time. They paraphrase Alfie Kohn and they speak of revolutions and I leave the conversation feeling tired.

Sometimes even a little hypocritical.

They’re right. I can’t make my students love reading, especially when I can’t even get them to bring a decent book to school.  Well-intentioned pizza coupons knocked the motivation out of them.  The factory school works against all things creative.  And yet . . .

I can still share my passion and offer a few bookshelves and watch what happens when the bribes are no longer a factor. I can sneak an insightful memoir for a kid who is just beginning to find his voice.  I can repurpose the factory and find a place of creativity that grows in the most unexpected places – that ivy that finds its way through the reinforced concrete, proving that a living, breathing story is still more powerful than the industrial concrete.

Ultimately, that’s a part of why I love middle school.  They aren’t in love with school like the little kids.  They know it’s a broken factory, but they aren’t cynical like the high schoolers. I get students at just that age when they are open to become critical thinkers who are open to repurposing the factory.

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