John Fountain: ‘I’m deaf … and I wanted to be of some service’

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Gabriel Wallace, who is deaf, volunteers to read to children on Father’s Day Thursdays at Matteson Elementary School in the south suburbs. Photo by John Fountain.

An update on “Father’s Day Thursdays” at Matteson Elementary School:

Men have been showing up — from far and near. Men — black and white. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Men. Among them a man named Gabriel.

From the Village of Matteson police officers, to a pastor, to a firefighter, to men from all walks, we file through the doors to read to children who attend the south suburban school.

Hallways are sometimes dotted with desks and chairs as children read to men who sit, listening intently, helping to sound out words, smiling, encouraging, commending. Or sometimes, inside classrooms, a man reads aloud, students hanging on every word. These are among the obvious observations.

These are not: That the number of men who have signed on to read has grown from one to two to three to seven to 20 — and at times even to almost 30. That a purposeful, pleasant spirit of the men — who have answered my call to please join me on Thursday mornings for 45 minutes and “be” the difference they want to see — fills Classroom No. 3, as we select books from our rolling cart.

It also might not be obvious that none of these men have a child or grandchildren at the school but see themselves as part of “our” village — as being connected regardless of race or class. Or that there is a growing excitement among the men and the children and also evidence that we are making a difference.

Then there is this: After I spoke with the men one Thursday morning — before Principal Pamela J. Powell led us to classrooms — one new brother needed to say something.

“I’m deaf,” he announced, his voice booming.

“But I read about what you all were doing and I wanted to be of some service,” he continued. “I’m a man. I want to do my part to help… And I figured if you could use me, I want to help.”

His name is Gabriel Wallace. His declaration left me almost speechless.

Despite his deafness, he said he could read to the children. Despite his uncertainty of whether his “disability” would be perceived as an impediment, he showed up.

Like the more than two dozen men who could choose to do something else early on a Thursday morning. Instead they keep choosing to show up.

“I’m not helpless,” Wallace continued. “I just have a problem.”

“As men, we all have an issue,” I responded as the men laughed. “We’re happy you’re here. We can use you.”

Later, I thought about how many more we could use to help in this endeavor to uplift our community through education and literacy and the impactful presence of even a few good men. I thought about how having police officers reading with little black boys might help mend and build a village.

How a little boy, bitter and wounded by the desertion of his father, might smile again and be moved toward healing by the presence of men who keep their promise to show up again and again to spend part of their day reading with him.

I thought about the smiles on the faces of the boys and girls as we read. About the smiles on the faces of the men, marching through the halls to make a difference.

I thought about all the good that might come to other schools — to us all — if as men, at last, we stood to reclaim our communities, one school, one child at a time. I thought about Gabriel Wallace. I thought about all the men who choose to do nothing.

And I thought: Man, what’s your excuse?


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