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JIM TRELEASE'S
Retirement Letter — p. 1

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On Thursday, 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.

pitcher  with book pages behind him and number 2500The 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 or not.

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.

With 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.

Ranking 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 "wake-up call."

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.

The biggest disappointment in 30 years of education work was the No 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 them anyway." 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."

The 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 Tom Friedman 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.

NEXT: Parents, principals, Dear Abby, "my" professors, and a dinner that
led me to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

CONTINUED on Page 2

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