Grilling hot dogs, homemade ice cream sandwiches and the snap-crackling sounds of barbecuing corn on the cob. The organizers of the 2010 Abbott Kinney Festival were ignited this past weekend as the mercury rose enough to finally deliver Santa Monica its first summer day of 2010. Little did I know, however, that a snarky comment from a 12 year-old kid could bring a dark cloud of uncertainty for our future.
I asked the boy, who was texting on his phone, “Do you like to read?” He shrugged his shoulder my way to reply, “Reading sucks, man.”
Now, I am never one to be at a loss for words, but at that moment, that moment of sadness upon hearing a child utter those now famous words, rendered me a speechless man.
As if hurled into a slow-motion scene of a stylized movie, my eyes blinked to register the moment before me. Looking for answers, my gaze found the boys father who was identically dressed in board shorts, a flat-billed baseball hat and leather flip-flops. Normally, I would expect the parent to quickly reel in the tweenager for his smart-alecky retort, but the father flashed a wry smile as if to say, “I guess he told you.”
I felt more alone than a man locked in solitary confinement. My heart sank into my sneakers.
There I was, living a new life away from six seasons of murder and mayhem on “Law & Order,” now dedicating my career to helping children and I hear this? The dark cloud of uncertainty arrived and I began to question my place in life. Did I make a mistake with a desire to reach and teach children? Have I bitten off more than I can chew when a child could utter such a retort and the parent was OK with it? Is our society so out of balance that we think reading sucks?
Knowing that one bad apple won’t spoil the whole wide world, I continued on, rethinking my approach. Diverting past opinion and the tragically hip father and son duo, I would now focus my inquiring based on facts by asking, “Do you read?”
For the next 30 minutes or so, I met some wonderful parents and children alike. To watch the eyes of an enthusiastic reader, grateful for a free bookmark with amazing illustrations, renewed my hope as a children’s book author.
While the “reading sucks” comment turned out to be a one-time experience on the first day of summer in Santa Monica, my education of the absentee parent was not over by a long shot. I encountered three tweens who replied to my question with an honest answer of “no.”
I appreciated the honest response, because I knew I was in the right place at the right time to change the direction of a child’s life, but the profound moment was the reply of the parent. “No, but he needs to. “Finally, I thought to myself, a parent who is concerned about their child’s reading habits. When I asked the parent, “Do you read?” however, the parent replied with a embarrassed, “no.”
How can we expect our children to read if we are not reading ourselves? For decades, we have adopted a system that allows educational cuts so deep that our children are no longer offered classes or competent teachers in creative arts. Isn’t reading a creative art form? Filled with imagination and dreams? Does reading really suck? Are we OK with the status quo of complaining about our society but willing to turn our backs on fixing education and our children’s futures?
Finally, we are seeing people like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey stepping up to say enough is enough, but it cannot stop with the billionaires of our society. It starts with the individual. It starts at home and most importantly the parent.
If you want your child to read, pick up a book and set an example. Turn off the TV and open a book, not a magazine that trumpets the exploits of train wreck darlings like Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton, but a page-filled book. Kindles and iPads are great, but children should not overlook the intimacy the printed word carries. When a child is captivated by a story, the book is carried everywhere and self-discovery is at hand.
We need to become accountable for the ideals we are teaching our children. We need to attend PTA meetings. We need to write our City Council and let it be known that education is our priority. We need to vote for education and be heard. United we stand, divided we fall. Sadly, we have been falling for decades, but change is afoot.
By standing for education, we can be the tipping point for educational change. Literacy is at a 15-year low for boys and this is not acceptable. Imagine a world if each and every one of us stood for education and not simply a desire to drive a new BMW or Benz? Have we become so obsessed with “getting mine” that it’s OK for our children to think reading sucks? I don’t think so, and I know I am not alone. You say I am a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Eric DelaBarre is the author of “Saltwater Taffy.” He is an award-winning filmmaker, speaker, and most recently a best selling ghostwriter for Random House/Harmony Books. Eric began his career with Universal Studios on NBC’s mega-hit drama, “Law & Order.” He is the past president of the Boys & Girls Club Council of Santa Monica. He lives and works in Santa Monica with his wife, Julie DelaBarre, and is an avid mountain biker. For more on Eric, visit www.whatagreatbook.com.