News and Tribune


April 18, 2010

CUMMINS: Why read when you can watch?

>>SOUTHERN INDIANA — Johnny can’t read because he doesn’t want to. He wants to get a car and take girls out, because school is awful. Girls want to get in the car with Johnny, because he’s awesome.

This is what we’re up against.

Miss Johnson sent Johnny to my office, because he wouldn’t do anything. When instructing her class to open their “Exciting Adventures in Literature” book to page 347, Johnny had lost his, the second day. Poets were crazy anyway. He was a borderline disrupter, but never when his head slumped down on his desk.

Miss Johnson realized letting Johnny sleep allowed her to go deeper into the poetry units. One day, she got fed up when he fell out of his seat during an explanation of a couplet in a sonnet. What did she expect me to do, find his book and teach him to read it?

You had to like Johnny. You knew that someday he might be the only mechanic in town who could fix your carburetor. We talked about life and goals for a while, and Johnny told me his only goal was to get his driver’s license and a job. His logic was that his dad had dropped out of school, and was making more driving a truck then teachers made.

After handing him a driver’s manual, I asked if he read the first page. The pressure got to him.

“Tell you what Johnny, I’ll make a deal with you, find your book, take it to class everyday, look down at the same page Miss Johnson’s on without closing your eyes, and I’ll help you pass the driver’s test.”

He seemed to take an interest, maybe because I’d taken an interest. Johnny and I went over the manual every few days, and he passed the test because he wanted to. Miss Johnson then became nervous again and sent Charlene to the office for popping gum. Charlene said the reason she popped it so much was teachers made her nervous. Willie lives in a noisy home with four siblings. Daddy’s buddies call him “Six-pack.” Mom manages the night shift at Quick Mart. One time Mom and Dad wouldn’t speak to each other so Daddy left. The smart kids get gold stars because they learn new things really fast. Johnny never ever got a gold star by his name, but the other kids snickered the one time his teacher asked him to stand up and read. In the fifth grade, Johnny decided there was no use trying.

Charlene’s background was similar, but she took her book to Miss Johnson’s class every day and sat there dreaming about a way to get out. Maybe having a baby would a way, like writing a beautiful poem, something to always love and call all your own.

There are a million Johnny’s and Charlene’s out there. The young can’t or won’t read because combinations of complex personal, psychological, social and economic factors and conditions interfere with or prohibit educational achievement. The last thing the growing numbers of families struggling economically and other wise have in their homes is something to read. Television is a blessing, MTV enriching.

Every child in the fourth grade will read at grade level, won’t they? Taught by the best teachers, many of the fourth-grade affluent kids in Suburbia Elementary read at the fifth-grade level and above, which is the norm. Younger, inexperienced and less capable teachers are stuck in Inner City Elementary. When they’re there, fourth-graders read near the second-grade level. At the end of the year, the class miraculously gained four months and now read at a 2.4 level, only 3.6 years behind, but making progress. Their gain was extraordinary considering the circumstances, but the first-year teacher is burned out already and looking for a waitress job.

Insisting every child in the fourth grade will learn to read at or near grade level is like demanding all children in the fourth grade run a 10-minute mile. It’s like expecting every high school graduate to name one of his or her two senators. Why can’t every child be led to realize they have potential, make progress and maintain hope? Schools should also be a place where teachers are encouraged, praised and have hope, too.

There’s another way to get kids to achieve. My two grandsons were floundering. I’ll pay you $10 for an A, five for a B, etc., but you pay me $10 if you get an F. The next grading period cost me $90.

When he’s not watching television, contact Terry at

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