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The Reading Relay Race

by Cheryl Paley
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Cheryl and Zoewell, here we are, it’s September and another school year begins. For my daughter that means 2nd grade. I am thrilled to report that Zoe has been assigned to a most playful, delightful teacher, Ms. Ruiz, who used to teach science to the lower grades. She lives in the neighborhood and we have on occasion even joined her, on hands and knees in the dirt, examining slugs and various and sundry insect species in the park.

Ms. Ruiz likes kids, she likes my daughter and most importantly, she pays attention. This is particularly fortunate because, for those in the New York City Department of Education, 2nd grade might as well be college prep bootcamp. 2 years out of Kindergarten and they will be “prepared” to face a battery of tests and subsequently “tracked” when they reach 3rd grade. Sounds positively terrifying to me and I am a full-fledged grown-up with battle scars and a Master’s Degree.

From what I have been able to glean from heated PTA meetings and morning gossip circles, this “tracking” has been somewhat modified recently and there are basically only 2 "tracks" in our school at this point – the “smarties” and “everybody else.” Well, sort of. There has been much speculation around the possibility that, out of three classrooms one of them is actually a lower track, and even typing the label everybody fears and nobody is un-pc enough to utter, the “dummie” group, makes me cringe.

Much of the criteria for “placement” centers around test scores for reading and writing. My daughter, bright and savvy in ways I couldn’t touch as a child, is motor-oriented, physical, and athletic. She has to move. And while she has begun to find certain aspects of the books I try so hard to tantalize her with appealing, it is not her first, second or third interest. Honestly, there are just too many hills to climb, rocks to jump on and off of and relay races to run. She just simply can’t be bothered. She has places to go!

I know, I know, reading. Who could possibly argue against the merits, the importance? Surely I, as a writer, wouldn’t dare. But, and please don’t hate me, I, yes, it’s true; I was not a “reader” either. Not really. And I do not remember how or when I actually learned to read, but I don’t believe it was ever forced down my throat like castor oil. We all just learned to read. And not, as I so often see nowadays, not in pre-Kindergarten.

Nobody was reading books in pre-Kindergarten, except maybe the children of college professors. And don’t get me started on this one, as pre-K in New York City can go for as much as $26,000 a year, but nobody I know even went to “pre-K.” We were playing in our respective parks or back yards, eating popsicles loaded with red dye and potato chips laced with carcinogenic chemicals. Somehow, some time around the end of 1st grade or some time in 2nd grade, we learned to read. We all just did it.

As an adult there have been pockets, windows of time in my past where I have been taken with a particular writer or concept and have gone through 10 plus books at a clip. I became fascinated with the easy, folksy storytelling style and progressive, historical reference points of Howard Fast and read everything he wrote one summer. And then there was a spiritual enlightenment phase where I consumed whatever the current literature was out there on past lives, soul mates, holistic healing and alternate states of consciousness. I lived from book to book, like a junkie.

And boy, do I want that kind of “high” for my child. But, and I can’t state this with enough righteous indignation, never have I found true joy and release in reading when it was forced down my throat. Nor was I ever exposed to testing and “tracking” consequences that might stigmatize me for years to come in the building I would spend more time in than anywhere else! Ask yourself, which track would you want to be in? If you found out you were “dummy” tracked for reading how would you feel about books for the rest of your life?

And yet, even as I whine and opine I know we are lucky. Zoe is in a lovely little neighborhood school, a block from our house. There is a lot of parent intervention, people are paying attention, and the Principal is friendly, receptive and accessible. But, as lovely and open-minded as she may be, she does after all have a job and must answer to a Department of Education run like more like a profit-centered conglomerate than The Little Red Schoolhouse. Test scores are like box office receipts. And those boys want results!

So I panic. And, despite my best instincts and everything I know to be true to the contrary, I run the reading relay race, back and forth between forcing my daughter’s hand around books she has little interest in, or cheesy, manipulative tactics she sees through in a hot second. All in desperate pursuit of something I know she will eventually find on her own, and in her own way. She will read.

Whew, thanks for listening. I feel a lot better. Now, don’t get me started on The Disney Channel…


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