The Power of Reading

I am a volunteer tutor at the Dane County Jail. I have been working with a young man for about four months now, and he is a bright spot in my life.

When Kevin was in public school he  was identified as a special education student. He never finished high school.  He’s been in and out of the criminal justice system since he was 17. Now, at 25, he is working to get his high school equivalency degree.

He works hard.

As we’ve worked together he’s told me about what it was like for him in school:  frustration, embarrassment, feeling stupid. He trusts me with knowing these things and, because he trusts me and wants to learn, he  agreed to try reading a couple of books I loaned him. They didn’t turn him on. No book had ever grabbed his attention and held it. Then a fellow tutor gave him Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, and I had the amazing privilege of seeing the power of reading come alive.

I asked him about the book and he lit up. He animatedly told me about the plot, about the incredible odds the main character, Brian, faced and the things he did to survive with only a hatchet to help him. This guy who grew up in urban housing projects talked about not knowing what he would have done in that situation, lost in the woods. He admiringly spoke of the ways that the protagonist had to be smart, be persistent and believe that he would get out of the bad jam he was in.

I found several more Paulsen books about Brian, the main character in Hatchet, and gave them to Kevin. He is devouring them.  I listen to him tell me about the book and I feel honored and deeply moved.

And troubled.

How, as a society, did we fail this young man when he was a boy? How can we make sure that young men of color learn to harness the power of reading when they are in elementary school rather than jail?

Kevin is like Brian. As a dropout with a felony conviction he is facing incredible odds for finding his way to a better life. But he is working with persistence and courage to get his diploma.  Will education be his hatchet?

And when he finds his way out, will those of us outside the jail walls find a place for him to stay?

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