Price Graff: Reading as community service

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(HOST) January is National Mentoring Month and writer-commentator Nancy Price Graff says that all you need for this particular kind of community service, is some time, a child, and a good book.

(PRICE GRAFF) At the core of every good children’s novel is a child who has discovered that the world is not a perfect place. These young characters need all their wits to face what life throws at them. Courage and determination are formidable allies. But in those stories that lodge in our hearts for a lifetime, the child endures. Hope trumps everything.

I’d like to think that every child has access to the hope at the end of a good story, but I know better. Many Vermont children live in homes without books or with adults who don’t or can’t read or who lack the time or inclination to read to them or who are unaware of statistics linking literacy with success. These children cannot access that hope with all of its potential for a different tomorrow because they have never read or heard the story that might change their lives.
Six years ago I signed up to read to a child at my local elementary school through "Everybody Wins," a statewide program that pairs adult volunteers with students. I was assigned a whirling dervish of a first grader, and for the next five years, we met every Thursday throughout th e school year to read together.

We chose our books from a cart in the hall.  He didn’t care for stories with magical kingdoms. He liked gritty books in which fathers die, bullies pummel schoolmates, and children suffer a host of betrayals. As he innocently dropped details about his own story, I realized that these books plunked him squarely into lives as troubled, chaotic, short-changed, and unsupported as his own.

I also discovered that in addition to these compelling stories, what kept him bounding down the hall to meet me every Thursday for five years was that I came at all, as regular as clockwork.  During our time together, he owned the undivided attention of one adult – something unique in the small universe of his life.

At some point I learned that I and the dozens of other "reading mentors" who flocked to the local elementary school each week had an inflated sense of our purpose. To the kids, we were simply "tors." It’s wonderful slang. A tor, after all, is a high craggy hill that affords a vista. Nothing describes better what a reading mentor can be to a child struggling to scale the steep slope of a difficult life.

I never believed I was saving the world by reading stories to a child, but for five years I saved my Thursdays for my young friend. Through the books we shared, I tried to give him a reservoir of hope that he can drink from again and again, so that no matter how dark and hard his own journey may be, he will know that he is not alone. Somebody, in some story, has gone there before him and is still there to show him the way.

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