Jan. 31, 2008, in Corona, California, I made my final
public presentation on reading. Since then I've received numerous
inquiries about why I'm retiring, some even suggesting
there might be a sad reason for the departure. Others wonder
why I'm walking away from a battle for literacy before
it's been won. Allow me to explain.
First, there is no
sad reason but several very joyous ones. The first is
my wife Susan who says she's "patiently
waited 24 years for Jim to come in off the road so we
can travel together." Somewhere in that statement
there's an oxymoron, but let's not go there.
Second, I now have five
wonderful grandchildren who deserve more of my time, not
less. As they inch upward, I don't
want to be stuck in a Holiday Inn in Indiana while one
of them is in a play in New Jersey.
But there are also
reasons beyond those. Haven't we all been in a situation
where dinner guests came to our home and then didn't
know when to leave? Haven't we seen professors, entertainers,
and athletes who have stayed in the limelight too long,
whose talents have eroded and they don't know it's time
to go home? Through 67 years of life and 30 years of public
speaking, I've seen my share of such people, and each
time I've said a silent prayer, "Please, Lord, let
me know when it's time to go home." He/She has answered
that prayer. I knew it was my time to go. Besides, if I
didn't get the message that way, the airline industry
was also telling me so when they confessed to a decade-long
high for "bumped" passengers the day I retired
and three days later announced a $25 fee for any second
piece of luggage (I always had
two). I'll miss those kind and generous folks and
their peanut dinners.
earlier sports analogy applies nicely to my situation.
In the old days, they left the pitcher out on the mound
until he either won or lost the game — or until his
arm fell off. Not any more. Now they do "pitch-counts." After
x-number of pitches, they take him out of the game, ready
In my case, I've been pitching
ideas to parents and teachers for 30 years — 24 years nationally.
That adds up to approximately 2,500 program sites, and
250,000 people. That's a lot of pitches, never mind
a lot of hotel rooms and airports in 50 states. So before
it becomes too many pitches (and my tongue falls off),
I've decided to just pitch "home games"— the
ones I can do from my desktop and Web site. The 2013 edition of my Handbook (my seventh and final edition) proved to be the easiest to write largely because I didn't have to run and catch a plane between paragraphs.
2,500 presentations, there were more than 3,000 airport
connections. Now here's where I was really blessed: I
never missed a program because of bad flights. A couple
of close calls, but no misses. Illness cancellations?
One (laryngitis) in 2,500 dates, though I had two places
where I was too sick to stand up and had to sit through
the presentation. I must have had a flock of guardian angels
looking over me to achieve those numbers and I know the
name of at least one — Linda
Long, my saintly
program manager for 20 years. The secret to our perfect
travel record: never catch the last flight in.
I ended up with a lot of 6:30 am departures for evening
events but it always left me enough time to re-book and
recover from canceled or delayed flights.
My worst nightmares
But even saintly Linda couldn't
prevent my worst nightmare from coming true: I slept through
a program date. It was back in the late 1980s and I'd flown
into southern California the night before from Hawaii,
thinking I had only a Monday evening program. Wrong — I
had an afternoon event as well. So when I was supposed
to be a few miles away, I was napping instead in my hotel
room. It was far and away the most embarrassing moment
in my career and haunted my dreams ever afterward and probably
will in the retirement years ahead.
right up there with the forgotten program was
the warning from the United Airlines pilot as we were about
to land at LAX: rioters were shooting at low-flying planes
in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. That was when
you hoped your seat cushion was good for more than just
a flotation device).
Another time I had to take a chartered
Piper Cub (just the pilot and me) from Palm Springs to
tiny El Monte airport near L.A. We were flying into the
fiercest Santa Ana wind storm on record and, to make
matters worse, as we approached the El Monte area we
were greeted by a blinding sunset decorated with lovely
California smog, at which point I heard the words I'd
never heard a pilot utter before (or since): "Mister,
I'm gonna need a little help right about here. See if you
can spot the airport."
Sometimes travel circumstances just
left you lost for words. At the top of such a list was
the Friday night the cab ran out of gas at the top of
a busy freeway overpass in Houston — where
there was no breakdown lane and the traffic couldn't see
the stopped cab until they were nearly on top of it. Talk
about prayerful moments. Come to think of it, Houston had
another nightmare moment: the Saturday noon when I was
robbed by a derelict with a box-cutter when I was out for
a power walk.
By working in California every January
and February for 24 years, I thought I could outwit the
weather man and avoid the dozens of ice and snow cancellations
I'd normally encounter home in the east. But there
was no escaping those staples of California climate: earthquakes
(one cancellation) and mudslides (one cancellation). And
then there was the morning I was driving on Mulholland
Drive to speak to a church conference and the brakes failed
on my rental car while coming down a hill. Talk about a
Sometimes all you could do was laugh,
like the time the teacher they sent to pick me up at the
airport was 50 minutes late, then ran over an abutment in the
airport parking lot, and finally went the wrong way on a one-way
street getting to the hotel. Didn't phase her a bit and
she talked non-stop all the way. In Toledo,
Ohio, back in the 1980s, the person picking me at the airport
(a lifelong resident of the city) got lost getting to the
hotel, lost again getting to the restaurant, lost a third
time getting to the high school, and then couldn't find
the auditorium in the school. Needless to say,
when she offered to drive me to the airport in the morning,
I begged off (profusely stating I'd inconvenienced her
enough) and took the hotel shuttle. Otherwise I might still
be driving round and round in Toledo like that
man named Charlie on the MTA.
The best and worst
For me, California was the state that
had the best record for parent turnout; New England was
the worst. In the latter case, I think the school scores
have been good for so long, parents don't feel they have
to be involved and administrators don't want to be bothered
by intruding parents. Nationally, public schools nearly
always outdrew private schools. My guess here is that private
school parents figured either they were raising perfect
children or, with the tuition they were paying, the teachers
ought to be doing this stuff themselves. I finally stopped
booking private schools. Texas was the place where they
made you feel the most welcome, including asking you to
come to church with them.
Two places invited me back so often I felt like they
were second homes: Tustin (Community
Preschool) and Modesto
City Schools, both in California. Those two also had two
of the finest administrators it was my pleasure to
work with: Director Libby Kayl in
Tustin and Superintendent
Jim Enochs in Modesto.
biggest disappointment in 30 years of education work was
Child Left Behind Act. It did (and does)
more damage to schools and children than anything short
of war. Indeed, in my opinion, it's a war on childhood.
Created by lobbyists for the textbook-testing industry
and a Congress that never sees the inside of a school
except for photo-ops, it has driven out thousands of
the most experienced teachers (who refuse to practice
intellectual child abuse) while disillusioning thousands
of the youngest teachers — all
in the name of testing that makes hundreds of millions
for the testing industry. Beyond profits, NCLB's only
other accomplishment was to create hundreds of thousands
of school children who associate reading with dry-boned
textbooks, boredom, pain, and the threat of failure.
A strange way to create a nation of readers. Saddest
of all, it was built on a hoax — there was no Texas
education miracle. They cooked the books the Enron way
and that's been documented time
and again. The one thing they really got right in Washington
was calling it the No Child Left Behind Act.
The most worrisome occurrence, other
than NCLB, is the drastic decline in newspaper readership,
something that portends sad things for American literacy,
never mind democracy. No matter the country, children
who come from homes containing the most print — newspapers,
books, and magazines — have
the highest reading scores. As more American homes
go without a daily newspaper, fewer children see a parent
reading anything, and the less there is to model on. True,
there is plenty of print on the Internet, as this very
text demonstrates, but few people read anything of
any length or depth online. Most computer "reading" is
done in seconds, not minutes or hours, and most children
use the Internet for downloading music and playing games
while their parents use it for shopping. None of this paints
a bright future.
Equally troubling is the new
breed among "anti-library" administrators who
think books are outdated, especially novels ("after
all, it's made-up stuff").
I actually had districts ask me not to dwell on fiction
in my talks because "most of the test material from
the state is on informational text." Lost on such
people is the distinction between information and knowledge.
As one writer put it, if all you need is information, then
we could all be citizen heart surgeons.
I was fortunate enough to work in the
richest and poorest school districts of America
— from Greenwich, Connecticut and Scarsdale, New
York to Webb and Tunica, Mississippi. The adage says that
travel is broadening. Agreed. Any doubts I
might have had about the economic
divide in American education were wiped out by visits
to schools like those. If I had one moment to live over
again on the road, it would be to revisit the boys'
room at an impoverished Mississippi high school.
This time I'd have my camera with me so I could take a
photo and compare that room with the toilet facilities
we offer the public in Las Vegas.
What's missing here?
Some experiences are in a category all
their own; they are neither the best or the worst—they're
just utterly bizarre. Such was the case when I visited
a small town on the gas fields of southwestern Kansas back
in 1986. I knew things were going to be different when
the principal picked me up at the tiny Liberal, Kansas
airport in his Cadillac. All the way to the school, he
bragged about his school library. "Wait'll you see
the thing— you're
gonna love it! It's just bursting with books." As
it turns out, they had no problem with a book budget. Their
abundant gas fields put two computers into every classroom
when most folks had only two to a school. Their elementary
school gymnasium had a scoreboard that would have made
the Lakers proud.
And then we arrived at the library. Sure
enough, it was bursting with books. But strolling
through its aisles, I noticed something strange.
I couldn't put my finger on it at first and then it struck
me: nearly all the books were missing dust jackets.
Just bare covers. "Who
took the covers off all the books?"
I asked. The smiling librarian said it
saved a lot of time in the end to just remove them in the
beginning— " After all, the kids will just rip
Apparently nobody ever clued them into why magazines have
covers and cookie boxes have front-space, or even why you
might need bright fancy lettering on a popsicle wrapper.
Takes all kinds, but like Molly Ivans used to
say about Texas legislators, "If the I.Q. sinks any
lower, we'll have to water 'em twice a day."
most encouraging signs in 30 years were the mega-book stores
like Barnes & Noble and Borders;
online booksellers like Amazon and Bookfinder.com;
libraries with coffee shops; the Harry
Potter phenomenon (which proved kids will read
willingly if you give them the right stuff); the proliferation
of audio books that can be downloaded to near-weightless
devices like iPods; podcasts
of NPR and affiliates with great author interviews;
and Oprah's blessed
book club. Twenty-five years ago you would have had to be
in the audience to see and hear the Pulitzer-winning
talk about his book, The
World Is Flat. Now
we can download such things, hear them, and share
them. Just when you thought there was no hope on
the reading horizon, one of those items popped up and gave
you hope. What a far cry from the misery of yesterday's
Puritanism; now we can sit in book stores' cushioned chairs
and browse a book or magazine while drinking a latté and
nibbling a pastry. We've come a long way in the last 30
years, Samuel Johnson, and you missed it! (Having written this paragraph almost five years ago, I now see book stores replicating the newspaper business: Borders Books is gone; Crown Books is gone; and Barnes & Noble has been up for sale for two years.)
Of all the educational research published
during my three working decades, the one that made the
most lasting impression on me and which I continually
shared with audiences was the work of Drs.
Betty Hart and Todd Risley: Meaningful Differences
in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.
It contradicted a large part of government's education
propaganda which says "If we fix the schools, we can
fix the child."
Meaningful Differences clearly showed the home
and family were the reasons at-risk children show up for
kindergarten with a 32 million-word deficit in their language
experiences. To get the child caught up with the higher-scoring
affluent students, the kindergarten teacher would have
to speak 10 words a second for 900 hours. The government's
obsession with testing to cure this gap is equivalent to
weighing the cattle more often to make them fatter.
principals, Dear Abby, "my" professors, and a
led me to the
Basketball Hall of Fame. CONTINUED on Page
search this site, use the Google search
engine to the left. Occasionally Google reports
older, out-of-date pages ("404
Error") which can usually be found using
Archives (pasting the missing URL
the "WayBackMachine" space).
COPYRIGHT NOTICE Trelease on Reading is copyright, 2011, 2014 by Jim Trelease and Reading Tree
All rights reserved. Any problems
or queries about this site should be directed
Reading Tree Webmaster