I grew up in a community that is now known as one of the poorest counties in Mississippi. When I return home for family visits, poverty is on every corner. Buildings that once housed prosperous family businesses are now boarded up or burned down. Most residents work out of town or are unemployed. Whenever I ask my mother, a lifelong educator, about the stark contrast from the town that was part of my childhood, she replies in a sad voice, “Education, education, education. We stopped teaching children to read for the love of reading. We stopped teaching children to dream big dreams. This is what you get.”
To my mother, education and economics are inseparable. She often told me, “Without an education, options are few. An educated community is crucial to its survival. Part of that survival is teaching children to learn to enjoy learning.” One of my mother’s core beliefs is to teach children to love to learn and they will become big dreamers. Big dreamers invest in their communities.
My mother taught me to love to read. My reading led me to become a dreamer. Dreaming taught me to face life without fear or hesitation. Reading was also my escape from country life. I grew up in a household with very little in the way of extras, but I had an abundance of everything – I was surrounded by educators, professionals, and kinfolks who showed me how things were done by allowing me to see them in their career settings. I also saw them with books in their hands at every turn.
I read books before I started school. My earliest memory of reading was to my grandfather. He would sit in his Lazy Boy chair rocking back and forth while I read to him from my small chair. Because he was hard of hearing, I read at the top of my voice. He had the patience of Job as I read one story after another. Reading to my grandfather was a routine I continued to end of his life. As an adult, my return visits to my grandparents always included stacks of magazines and newspapers from other cities. I would eagerly share with him who I had met and where I had been and read to him articles from places he never got to visit. He would smile and grin and give commentary on the politics and economics of municipalities as if he lived in each one.
When my grandfather became ill, I returned to Mississippi until he passed away. Every evening, I read stories to him. Every evening. Often, I wondered if he heard me, but I read to him anyway as I had done as a child. Loudly. Bible passages, novels, news stories, even some of my favorite childhood books were read to him until he took his last breath.
My love of reading to my grandfather has transitioned to reading to school-age children in area schools. I realized that my interactions with the many children I see during the holidays as Ms. Santa must go beyond giving them toys with a temporary shelf life. Catherine Ramsey, a lifelong educator and fellow book club member, taught me by her actions at Christmas. As a gift to her, she only wanted book club members to give books to young girls. She wanted to plant seeds of loving to read while they were young. Catherine Ramsey has never met my family but their philosophies about life and education are exactly the same.
Private, public, charter schools, and daycares have all called me to visit their children to read. I have donned my famous Ms. Santa suit for the Girl Scouts. I have been the Queen of Hearts for Valentines Day and I have dressed as a leprechaun to cheer on test scores in March for Buena Vista Enhanced Option School. I have been Spiderwoman at Grace Eaton and a Reading Princess at Hull-Jackson Montessori. Name a holiday or occasion and I have a costume to help incorporate into a story. My visits may seem outlandish to the casual observer but many educators encourage me to come often. My visits also bring community into the classroom and introduce children to professionals who not only work but serve. I have managed to recruit other entrepreneurs to join me. Why should I have all the fun?
My visits with the schoolchildren are not limited to the classroom. Escorting several classes, community groups, and families to the Frist Center helps incorporate the arts into storytelling that is meant to encourage loving to learn. The visits to the Frist Center at the beginning of the school year have helped several students and their families to become museum regulars. I have been told by parents and teachers alike that they have seen improvements in test scores and attention spans. The students come to the Frist Center to create their masterpieces inspired by their favorite books that they have read at school.
No matter where a child attends school, all villagers must be active participants in helping to create environments where loving to learn is at the forefront. We must all look for ways to make learning engaging and exciting to equip the next generation to help keep our communities vibrant and economically strong. Loving to learn produces big dreamers. And big dreamers invest in their villages and communities.