I teach high school English. Last December, a student came to see me after I finished figuring out semester grades. For a student who is doing well, I love to be the bearer of good news. But there was nothing nice to report to this young man. Though I knew his grade, I opened the gradebook; perhaps the delay might soften the blow. He stood over me expectantly as I announced, “Sorry, Oscar, you got a D.”
Oscar didn’t curl up into a fetal position and whimper, “My folks are going to ground me forever.” Oscar didn’t try to cut a deal. “Uh, Mr. Biers. I know I probably haven’t been the best student, but if I get a D, I can’t play basketball. If you could give me a C, I promise I’ll do better next semester. Really.”
No, Oscar did neither; rather, he raised his arms and hollered to the heavens, “Yes!” The D made his day.
While Oscar and many of his friends are happy with a D, I know that Oscar has failed to learn. There are an awful lot of Oscars in my school. Why? There are a myriad of reasons, yet if I were to name a single culprit for the many terrible grades and test scores that come forth from my school, it would be: students do not read. This problem is not endemic to Winters High School. It is a world-wide pandemic. People no longer read because a book can’t compete with YouTube or Call of Duty.
We writers are hopeless optimists. We spend hours and days and months and years, crouched over keyboards hammering away at our manuscripts in the vain hope that someone will read our words. Then we send the manuscripts to agents and publishers by the gross only to be rejected. But we are masochists and send and send and send, and if we have luck we might land a modest contract, and it feels as if we have seen the face of God. But in our hearts we know it would be nothing less than a miracle to sell enough copies to warrant a second printing.
Oscar is in a class of 28 boys and 7 girls. The boys like to yell “Penis!” at random times. I had a sub a few weeks back. Her note to me read, “Never in my ten years of substitute teaching have I had a class as misbehaved as this one.” She’s right. I can’t teach them anything. But three weeks ago, I laid out a selection of a dozen classic books from Catcher in the Rye to The Stranger and told them, “Pick one. We’ll be reading everyday for 30 minutes.” They laughed. One student said, “I’ve never read an entire book in my life.” “No way,” I replied. He smirked at me in a way that said, “Yes way.”
For the first day about a third read, a third pretended to read every time I looked up from my book, and a third did nothing but whisper things to their neighbors like, “Penis!” They knew the experiment would end like my other teaching attempts. But week two rolled around, and each class started with, “Take out your reading books,” and each day a couple more kids got beyond page 1. By week three there was thirty minutes of silent reading in the classroom. The kid who never finished a book in his life was half-way through Lord of the Flies.
I wrote The Bar Mitzvah and The Beast because I believe in miracles and the power of the written word. It might not be as entertaining as watching a YouTube video of a cat flushing a toilet, but it not only entertains, it provokes thought. I hope you read The Bar Mitzvah and The Beast and join me on this website to discuss the issues brought up by the book because these are some of the critical issues facing us today, and a high kill ratio playing Call of Duty won’t be able to solve them.