Bolton: Reading level, not race, helps determine a child’s future

Associate EditorMarch 6, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— ONE RECENT evening, my sons and I sat reading prior to heading to bed.

While I often end up reading to them, this was one of those times when each of us took a turn reading to the others. After my 8-year-old had read a chapter, he passed the book to his 5-year-old brother, who is excited about learning to read. As Christopher read along, requiring help only now and then, I thought back on a conversation I had with a caller earlier in the day.

He was a white caller who said he was exasperated with the crime and killing among young black men; he particularly pointed out the ridiculously high occurrence of black-on-black crime.

I agreed with him and told him it’s a trend we must all work to reverse. I also told him that while black boys certainly are killing one another and committing crime against other African-Americans at an alarming rate, whites mostly commit crimes against and kill whites.

He then went there, the place where so many of the bigots who call me ultimately end up: He said that he and his friends had been talking and that they had decided that the cause of many of society’s problems — and even local problems here — boils down to one common denominator: Most of the culprits are black.

What? That’s pretty shallow, I said, and asked him if their discussion went any deeper than that.

Unfortunately, many people don’t venture beyond skin deep when considering such matters simply because they don’t choose to. It’s ignorant to think that skin color alone can dictate someone’s actions or abilities — or worth. The fact is that black and white people commit crime; black and white people are corrupt. And when you look carefully, you find that there are some common traits among those who go astray, regardless of their race.

But you have to ask deeper questions than, “What color were they?” Questions such as, “Could they read?” or “Did they have a high school diploma?” or “Were their parents, particularly their fathers, active in their lives?” or “Were they never taught or never learned how to make good choices?” Sometimes poverty might be a factor.

And even in asking these questions, you’ve got to be careful. Just because someone comes from a single-parent home or is poor or isn’t well educated doesn’t mean he is a bad actor. Most people are law-abiding citizens who want to live in safe neighborhoods and are working to provide as good a living for their families as possible, given their circumstances.

The color of my sons’ skin — or any child’s skin — is not an indicator of their direction in life, regardless of how many racists want to believe differently.

With every word they learn, every step they take toward greater proficiency in reading, my sons draw closer to achievement, graduation, college and a productive life. Is reading the end all and be all? No. But it is a powerful tool that can be leveraged to produce greatness in our children.

While there are exceptions to every rule, show me someone who can’t read, and I’ll show you someone who more than likely fell short of his potential, is poor or is headed for crime and jail.

If you can’t read, you’re not filling out job applications, which means you’re not getting a job, more than likely. And that means that you have to turn to alternative means of survival, which for some is crime.

Go to the S.C. Department of Corrections web site, and you’ll find that two-thirds of the men in our state’s prisons are African-American. But that’s not the common bond.

Of the nearly 21,000 men in our state’s prisons as of June 30, more than half of them didn’t have a GED or high school diploma when they entered; the average reading score was below the ninth-grade level.

Some of the other factors I’ve mentioned above also come into play. For example, in South Carolina, if you’re African-American, there’s a high likelihood that you’re poor. Another sad statistic is that about 70 percent of black children are born into single-parent homes.

Statistics show that young children who grow up without active fathers in their lives are more likely to commit crime, become delinquents, try drugs, become teen parents, join gangs, etc.

If you’re fed up with young black boys — or any other children — growing up and becoming dropouts and gang members and criminals, do something about it: Teach them to read at an early age. Help make sure that they get a quality education and have positive role models in their lives so they will grow up to be productive, law-abiding citizens.

Should their parents be the first and strongest influence in their lives? Absolutely. But the fact is that many parents either can’t (because of work or because they lack the tools and abilities) or won’t be as active as they should be in their children’s lives. That’s when the community, the school and, yes, the government must step in and help fill the gaps.

I’m glad that Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Harvey Peeler and others are pushing for programs to help our kids learn to read effectively. I’m not convinced holding children back if they don’t read at a certain level by a certain grade would be effective or even good for the students. But the focus on reading is dead on.

I volunteered at the Department of Juvenile Justice for about seven years as a mentor, Bible study and vacation Bible school teacher and tutor. When teaching Bible study, one thing that I could not do was randomly select one of the young men and ask him to read. So many of them either couldn’t read or read poorly; putting them on the spot would have been very embarrassing.

Most of those young men looked like me and my sons. But unlike me and my sons, reading had never been stressed as an important part of their lives.

I was the last to read that night when my sons and I all took turns. It was my plan to not read at all once the two of them had finished, so I could hurry them off to bed. After reflecting on my conversation that day, I not only read but I read a few pages beyond where I normally would have.

Reach Mr. Bolton, author of “God Is Grace: Lessons to a Father from a Son,” at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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