because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

The Book Collector: Bar Mitzvah Tales

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Two years ago, Tech and I found ourselves parked in a part of Rochester that we don’t usually frequent. A voracious reader, there was a particular title he wanted to read and only one library actually had it in all of Rochester. And that library was downtown. He was hell-bent on getting it, and he knew that I would not rush to pay for a copy at the local bookstore.

So we went on a wee road-trip.

After he checked out the book with his library card, I suggested he check out their YA section.

After two minutes, Tech returned with a frown.

“This is the worst library ever,” he declared. “There are no books.”

He dragged me over to the YA area, and it was true; the selection was dismal.

“Where are all the kids’ books?” he asked the librarian sitting nearby.

She looked at Tech and told him honestly that sometimes people checked out books from the library and didn’t return them.

“You mean people steal them?” Tech was outraged.

“Some kids don’t have books at home, so they take them from here.” The librarian explained. “Once our books are gone, we don’t have the resources to replace them. And of course, some books just get lost.”

Tech Support tilted his head, trying to wrap his brain around the concept that not all children have shelves filled with books in their homes, the way he does.

In the car, Tech Support made an announcement.

“I want to collect books and give them to kids so they can have books at home,” he said. “Can I do that for my bar mitzvah?”

“Sure,” I said as I screwed around with the CD player.

“Will you help me?” he demanded. “Seriously?”

I looked at my son’s eyes in the rear view mirror.

Tech has always been a collector. When he was younger, it was coins and LEGOs and Webkinz frogs. Later, he fell in love with mechanical pencils and magnets and rubber bands. He has a green bowl filled with origami stars and shelves filled with all kinds of weird stuff.

When my son gets an idea in his head, there is no stopping him.

He decided his goal would be to collect 1,300 books as a mitzvah project.

He picked 1,300 because the bar mitzvah usually occurs on or near a Jewish boy’s 13th birthday.

For him, the number 13 wasn’t unlucky.

It was super-symbolic.

I knew the collecting part wasn’t going to be hard for him.

I just didn’t know what we were going to do with them.

I figured we’d let them pile up and figure out that part later.

He started collecting just before Thanksgiving and by mid-April and, with the help of wonderful neighbors, friends and the folks at The Rochester Fencing Club, Tech exceeded his goal.

This picture was taken as an after-thought. After I realized we had boxed up nearly all the books.

One afternoon, we stood in the basement.

There were books in bins and boxes and bags.

Everywhere.

“Mom,” Tech said. “Can you find a place where I can give kids the books?” he asked. “So they can keep them?”

“I don’t know,” I told him.

Because I didn’t think I could.

I really didn’t.

I knew we would be able to drop them off somewhere where adults would sort through them and distribute them to other adults for use in classrooms.

But then I stumbled onto The Mercier Literacy Program for Children.

I called the contact person.  We did a little back and forth, and then it happened: a miracle disguised as an email.

It read:

I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the RocRead program taking place in the Rochester City School District. Children read a book, write an essay on it, and once they hand it in, they get an incentive/prize.

So far, students have read 14,000 books through this program.

The details are being worked out right now – but the preliminary plan for Monday, April 30th is to have an event in the library of one of the schools to announce that every child present will receive a book as part of RocRead – with your son present to distribute books.

How does this sound? 

How did it sound?

It sounded like someone took a cup of totally cool and mixed it with three pounds of awesome.

The following Monday, Tech sat in the front seat of my Honda and I drove to school #41 in a car stuffed from floor to ceiling with books which we had sorted by grade level. When we found school #41, Tech borrowed a cart, loaded it up with boxes, and zigzagged his way back into the school.

The principal appeared. She greeted my son with a hug, and we all headed downstairs to the library. The custodian materialized with the cart and told us she would bring everything to the library on the service elevator. While Tech chatted it up with the librarian, the custodian appeared and I scattered books across two long tables until both surfaces were covered.

And then they came. Wearing uniform red shirts and khaki pants, the children sat crisscross-applesauce. The school librarian introduced Tech and asked him to speak to the students. I was certain he was going to freeze up. We had not prepared for that kind of thing. He did not know how to speak in front of…

…but there he was.

Doing it.

Explaining why he had started the book collection.

And when the librarian announced that each student was going to get to take home two books from Tech’s collection, the kids bounced up and down and cheered.

Tech smiled.

As the kindergarteners walked around the tables, Tech encouraged them to shift the books around and not to only look at the top layer. Once the children made their selections, they returned to their designated areas on the floor and another group came up.

I have to tell you, it was a beautiful sight.

They were all reading!

Or trying to.

Some silently. Some aloud. Some to each other.

The local television crews were there. Tech was interviewed three times, and even though he really wanted to downplay his role, he went along with whatever the people asked him to do.

I always knew that there would come a day that I would look at my son — the person who carries 50% of my DNA — and see him as the person he might become.

On that day, I saw my son as a person who doesn’t just have the potential to do good things, but as a person who is already doing them.

And I was amazed.

Because up until then, I just thought he was the boy who forgot his coat in his locker.

The kid who left his water bottle at fencing practice.

The dude who still needed to be reminded to brush his teeth.

But on that day, I saw my son as other people see him.

I realized that he likes to help other people.

And not because I told him to help people.

But because he really likes to.

On that day, I thought about the way he used to put together his elaborate LEGO sets, and I realized his tenaciousness was all about creating a person who would sets his sights on a goal and then surpass that goal.

My son is not finished.

Just today he asked, “What should I do next?”

I shrugged, confident he will figure it out.

Because that’s what he does.

This year, my son reminded me that individuals can repair the world.

I almost forgot.

How do your children inspire you? Have you ever done a community service project with your family? If so, what kinds of things have you found the most rewarding?

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Functional Illiteracy: The Repost

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People who know me know I’m struggling this semester. I try to explain how a larger number of my college students seem to have weaker skills this year; how I can’t get them to use capital letters (or, in some cases, how I can’t get them to stop randomly capitalizing words that don’t need to be capitalized); how they won’t stop writing “im” instead of “I’m”; how I can’t get them to stop using the letter “u” when they mean the word “you.”

“They don’t know how to outline!” I exclaim. “Or write in five paragraph essay format!”

People think I’m exaggerating. “Things can’t be that bad,” folks say.

Finally, here is a perfect example of why my panties are in a bunch this year.

This post called “Functional Illiteracy” from Just Sayin’ addresses some of the very real struggles that educators are facing today, even at the college level.

Do you have discussions with your kids regarding their use of language? Are they writing as well as you would like? Do error-filled papers (with high marks) come home from your children’s schools? Do you think their grades are inflated? Because, I am here to tell you, graduating high school students are not using capitalization or punctuation.  Many high school graduates have not figured out basic written communication skills which my peers and I had mastered in the 6th grade and spent the following years perfecting.

Many of this generation’s students are essentially unemployable, and if you don’t believe me, read this post from my friend, Michael Hess, of Skooba Design. Because as a business owner, he cares about the way people write.

Do you care about how you write?

Or r u 2 busy txtin 2 care?