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John Fountain: Seeking a few good men — to teach reading

John Fountain and Percy Timberlake volunteer to teach reading at Matteson Elementary School.

Still Wanted: A few good men to read for 45 minutes Thursday mornings to first through third graders at Matteson Elementary School, Matteson, Ill. Now is the time to make a difference. Not when a child is lying dead in the street — shot by police — or ensnared by the school-to-prison pipeline. For Laquan McDonald, we arrived 17 years too late.

A brother I saw at the coffee shop one recent morning told me he had seen my picture in the newspaper and that the story made mention of a mentoring program I was involved with. I explained that it’s a reading program at south suburban Matteson Elementary School and that we read to children on Thursday mornings.

He shrugged, seeming somewhat unimpressed. “We gotta do more than that…” he said.

Huh? More than what?

OPINION

I explained that once upon a time it was illegal to teach a slave to read. That there is a direct correlation between illiteracy and incarceration. I explained that researchers can predict by the time little black boys are in the fourth grade how many prisons eventually will be needed to house them.

I told him that we read to first-through-third-grade students and in so doing have an opportunity to help save them. I could have told him that, according to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is linked to reading failure.”

I could have told him that studies show 85 percent of all youths who enter the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate; and that over 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons can’t read above the fourth grade level.

I could have told my “friend” that reading on Thursdays is also about our presence as men in the life of a child who might not have a father. That indeed he might be the only black adult male contact for a child that entire week.

Truth is: So far, convincing men to join our reading campaign seems to be a tough sell.

I suspect, however, that there would be no shortage of brothers volunteering to take free tickets to the Sunday football game; or showing up for an invitation to kick it with the fellas over a few stogies; or available to go to the shooting range, the golf club or to the various places and things we men invest in that only fade in time.

Since late fall, my pleas have netted seven men, including myself. I call us the “Significant Seven.” I am grateful. But we need more. Black or white. Short or tall. Men. We need men.

Half frustrated, I thought about asking mothers to join our effort. But mothers already carry more than their fair share. What our children need are men, fathers. What we need is not a Million Man March but men marching to our schools in our communities to read to-and mentor-our children. To embrace and uphold our mantra: Real Men Read.

There was a reason it was illegal to teach slaves to read: Once they learn to read, they are no longer slaves.

The brother at the coffee shop chatted a bit more and commended me on my effort. But ultimately he did not offer to show up, having instead spent his time wasting my time.

It is a joy to read to our children, to see their faces beam. It is also my privilege and honor. And I still believe there are plenty of men out there who feel the same.

So I ask again: Can we get a few good men? Please?

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com

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