This is a chapter from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
CHAPTER TEN — p. 2
See also Handbook
CHAPTER 10: A Hyper-Kid's Road to Reading
A teen reader discovers his "secret stuff"
The young adult novelist Bob Lipsyte, writing about book subjects that interest boys, has observed that competition is one of the items that drive males, and especially boys, in many of their life choices.1 In my case it was going to play a pivotal role in my reading. I should explain, St. Michael’s had no physical education classes or teams. Thus, until we moved into our first house, in North Plainfield, New Jersey, I’d never played on a single team. Oh, we had little pickup games in the vacant lot behind the apartments but nothing organized—no uniforms or caps, no umpires or coaches.
INSPIRATIONS: "Bud" Porter and
vintage Sports Illustrated
That put me at a decided disadvantage when I arrived in North Plainfield, where almost every boy played sports and every sport was taught in PE class by a pied piper–like teacher named Harold “Bud” Porter (who would become my hero and friend). While I had watched sports on TV, there were only six channels in those days and limited sports. How was I going to catch up on all that I had missed in sports?
Into this breach stepped Henry Luce, founder of Time and Life magazines. Luce had just created a weekly sports magazine called Sports Illustrated, something people thought would become Luce’s folly. It was a publication, I learned later, that Luce was using to impress his wealthy sporting friends in the Hamptons and Greenwich. I don’t know if it impressed them, but it was just what this adolescent needed. Not only would it fill my sports void, it had advertisements for stuff like deodorant and shaving cream. This meant it was written for grown-ups; therefore I suspected whatever was in SI (as it was known to its devoted readers) had to be the God’s honest truth. Soon my younger brother, Brian, joined me in devouring every issue.
HERE were several things about SI, however, that we didn’t know at the time. Since the target audience was Hamptonites, its stories were, shall we say, on the rich side. If you were to look into the SI vault of covers (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/home/index.htm), you would find a preponderance of cover stories on horse racing, golf, tennis, dog shows, bowling, bullfighting, steeplechasing, and sailing. (Only six basketball stories versus seventeen clothing articles in 1954.)
Wait a minute, my brother and I wondered, this is sports? We thought sports were baseball and basketball, but— maybe we were wrong. There’s all this other stuff, too. So we better read it if we’re going to be real sportsmen.
I should add that SI had hired some fancy writers to do its reporting (and impress the folks in the Hamptons), people like Herbert Warren Wind, John Underwood, John Gerald Holland, and Whitney Tower. All these years later their names reek of richness. Here’s how Wind, recruited from The New Yorker, described the maturing of the Masters golf tourney:
In just about a score of years, the Masters, which started out in 1934 as just a notable competition, has grown so inexorably in prestige and honest glamour that today it has come to eclipse the National Open in the stir it arouses, and this stir is sufficient to place the event in just about the same category as the World Series (inaugurated in 1903) and the Kentucky Derby (first run in 1875) as a full-fledged national sports classic.
In case you weren’t keeping score, that’s an eighty-word sentence, normally not a thirteen-year-old’s reading fare. But I was willing to wade through it to get the scoop on this guy Ben Hogan.
That’s an important point. Personal interest can be a powerful driving force with boys, whether that interest is sports, auto repair, model racing, war, music, or computers. The window of opportunity through which you can reach his mind might only stay open a short while, so allow as much through it as the child is willing to consume.
"Secret stuff" from the country club board room
I like to think of those SI writers as my early writing coaches. Most people are affected one way or another by the words and people they hang around with. Few people write doggerel after reading good literature. Granted, they may not write exactly like Dickens after reading him, but they certainly recognize the difference between him and junk. Exposure to great writing can only have a positive effect, especially if the writing is willingly absorbed.
The first time my own name appeared in print was in Sports Illustrated, November 28, 1955, when I was listed as a contributor to the U. S. Olympic team by purchasing a $10 membership card to make-believe Happy Knoll Country Club. For two years the magazine serialized a novel (Life at Happy Knoll) by the social critic and novelist J. P. Marquand, in which he satirically explored the machinations of the board members at a fictitious country club. Did this fourteen-year-old understand all the social commentary tucked into the series? No, but it gave me a good idea of how rich people maneuvered in their world and how decidedly different their secrets were from mine. You might call it “secret stuff ” from the boardroom, and I gobbled it up.
Secret stuff is another driving force with boys (the stuff we think the grown-ups don’t want us to know), and it was on my mind one day in ninth grade when I picked up a copy of My Six Convicts: A Psychologist’s Three Years in Fort Leavenworth by Donald Powell Wilson. I’d stumbled on it in the adult section of the North Plainfield public library and the cover convinced me this was something really secret. I didn’t know a single psychologist or convict but I was willing to bet there was a ton of stuff in there I wasn’t supposed to know. Secret stuff.
More "secret stuff," this time from the Big House
A California professor, Jo Stanchfield, once told me that girls tend to be extrinsically motivated in their reading (favoring the choices of their peers, mom, and teacher), while boys are intrinsically motivated (favoring what they themselves are interested in). I agree. Call it selfish or pragmatic, but guys are drawn more to what interests them, not what interests the crowd. That certainly was the case with Convicts. And it was going to change my life.
The book was as revealing as I had hoped, and I used it as my first book report for my freshman English teacher, Mr. Alvin R. Schmidt. I can’t recall ever writing a book report in the years before this, although there must have been others. I do know it was the first adult book I’d ever reported on. Not long after that, Mr. Schmidt summoned me to his desk after class and handed me a sealed envelope for my parents.
I was never what you would call an introverted child, so there might have been about a dozen things for him to contact my parents about at the end of a marking period, and I worried all the way home. My mother read the contents, a single page, stuffed it back in the envelope, and said, “We’ll talk about it when your father gets home.” Must be really bad, I thought.
She waited until after dinner and sent my brothers out of the room before giving my father the letter. I watched him read it, watched his eyes fill up. I winced at the trouble I must be in. Then he handed me the piece of paper.
This note is to inform you that James’s work and attitude during the first marking period in English 1 have been “tops.” It has been a pleasure working with “Jim,” and I’m sure that he’ll maintain the fast pace that he has set. Jim expresses himself very well in writing and speaking and has served as an inspiration to his class. My congratulations to both of you.
—Very truly yours, A. R. Schmidt
I’d been in school nine years by that time, and no teacher had ever sent home such a note. As I look back on it now, I think: Here was a second-year teacher (I later learned) who was talking about “gifted and talented” nearly twenty years before the concept came into vogue, who had the decency and sense to send a note to the manufacturer to let them know the product was working. I never forgot that man or his note. Here was someone, besides my own family, who thought I was special. It was something I tucked away in my heart.
At the end of that school year I moved away to Massachusetts (Mr. Schmidt wrote, of his own accord, to my new school to make sure they put me in a journalism class), and the year after that Mr. Schmidt switched to another district and we lost touch. One day in 1975 I was driving someplace with my widowed mother and I asked her, “Mom, do you remember that teacher I had in New Jersey years ago, the one who sent that note home to you and Dad?”
"I had Mr. Schmidt in eighth grade. He’s the reason I’m a teacher today.”
There was a pause and then she said quietly, “I’ll never forget it.” We talked a bit about Mr. Schmidt, wondering where he had gone, and then we left the subject. But the next day when I dropped by, she had the original letter from Mr. Schmidt, dated twenty years ago that week. What I had tucked away in my heart, my mother had tucked away in a dresser drawer as a family heirloom. Today it rests in my dresser drawer.
I mention all of that for several reasons. Certainly the recognition I received for my writing and speaking (he insisted we give speeches in class throughout the year) was important for my adolescent self-image. No grade on a paper could mean as much as that note home. Second, Mr. Schmidt was a very young teacher without a long list of degrees after his name but he possessed an intangible that makes for a great teacher: His students loved him, respected him, and would have walked through walls for him. There is no accreditation exam that can measure such qualities in a teacher. No matter how much money you dangle as a merit raise in front of a teacher, you cannot create that kind of magic extrinsically.2
Mr. Schmidt and I found each other again years later when the first edition of this book came out and I dedicated it to him and my children. He told me that dedication made not only his day and his week, but his nearly thirty years in education. Several years later I attended his retirement party in Cranford, New Jersey, and the next morning I drove to make a presentation in a small town in New Hampshire, an afternoon in-service for about twenty-five teachers. In the course of the presentation I mentioned Mr. Schmidt and his impact. At the break, a young teacher approached me and said, “I grew up in Cranford, New Jersey, and had Mr. Schmidt in eighth grade. He’s the reason I’m a teacher today.”
The road to reading is seldom a solo journey.
There is much talk these days about applying the business paradigm to schools and measuring teachers’ effectiveness by their students’ test scores. The practice is deeply scarring the profession, driving out some of the best we have. (Imagine if we told police we were going to pay them on the basis of the crime rate: Lower crime rate equals higher pay. Nobody would want to police urban America; everybody would head for the suburbs.) Whenever I read of such measures, I think of the impact Mr. Schmidt had on his classes. How could you begin to measure his effectiveness with a test?
So there you have it—one kid’s route to reading. Did you notice it wasn’t a solo journey? All the traveling company I had—family, libraries, teachers—ensured I reached my destination safely. And while there’s no single road map to reading that works for everyone, there are people along the route who always make it easier, by reading to us daily, providing plenty of rich print around us, and offering encouraging words—words, not tests.
As Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And it is the feel we get from great parenting, great teaching, and great reading that changes our lives. Male or female, it’s a feeling we remember forever.
covered in Chapter Ten of print and e-book editions: