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Reading opens world of possibility for young minds

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You can always tell when summer comes to an end. The evening twilight comes a little sooner and the roads are again full of school buses. So it was on Monday when Nash County students returned to their classes.

For adults, school’s start is complicated by two controversies. One is the state budget impasse that has held up critical school funding and teacher raises. That’s politics at its worst.

Secondly, on Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill designed to revamp a North Carolina student reading program, “Read to Achieve,” because he said the bill would put “a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed.”

The “Read to Achieve” program, sponsored by Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, began in 2013. Its goal was to make students proficient in reading before they complete third grade.

The goal was worthy. The earlier students can read, the better they will perform later in school. And the state spent $150 million on Berger’s idea, no small amount for something so important.

The problem is, “Read to Achieve” has not achieved its purpose. A 2018 study by N.C. State University found no benefit on reading scores and even some decline in test results. Cooper said in his veto message that the program itself had proven “ineffective and costly” even as he acknowledged “teaching children to read well is a critical goal for their future success.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen to Berger’s program. I agree with Cooper that if the program isn’t fundamentally working, then the proposed minor reforms aren’t enough and another approach may be needed. But Berger was right, for one of his few times, that early childhood education is critical. His program followed several similar initiatives by Democratic governors and legislators. The goal itself is bipartisan, regardless of which program has been tried.

The budget will work itself out eventually, but improving the state’s reading scores is more important. Parents, educators and politicians need to work together for a better solution because, as one older initiative proclaimed, reading is fundamental.

The ability to read and write is the foundation not only of all learning but also of all communication, whatever the form. We acquire, share and impart information from one generation to the next through language, allowing the world to advance and culture to grow. The alternative is crippling ignorance. Children who cannot read become adults who are left out, and society pays the price.

But I’ve learned through personal experience that learning to read is more than simply gaining and sharing information. It is the doorway to imagination, understanding and wisdom. Reading can be life-changing and, for me, its magic was lifesaving.

When I was a young boy, in the second through fourth grades, I was what society then called a “cripple.” I was afflicted with a rare hip disease called Legge Perthes. For a year I wore a full leg cast and used crutches to get around as the doctors figured out what was wrong. Then for the next two years I wore a heavy steel brace on one leg and a big clunky shoe to balance it out on the other side.

I learned full well the cruelty of children, whose teasing and frequent rejection was merciless. I could not play like my friends, though I tried. I spent much of my time alone, feeling like an outcast and a failure. I hated the pain. I hated the brace. I hated school where I was tormented. I began to hate myself.

But then I learned to read. In books, with all their stories and imaginary worlds, I could lose myself in their wonders, their joys, their humor and their hopes. I read everything I could — Narnia books when they were first coming out, Mark Twain in the third grade, children’s classics like “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” and “Pippi Longstocking,” the science fiction of Robert Heinlein and even old adult classics like “The Three Musketeers,” whose adventures and sometimes bawdy behavior transported the lonely boy to an exciting world in his own head.

Reading kept me sane and gave me a thirst for knowledge and the ability to experience real and imagined worlds through others’ eyes. It gave me the comfort and courage I needed to endure, survive and even thrive during those lonely childhood years. It set the stage for my future career.

Books nowadays come in many forms: regular, e-books, even audiobooks. But the magic doesn’t change. No other medium is more powerful than the human imagination, spurred by spoken or written words. I love it now.

My hope for our children, as this school year begins, is that they too discover and enjoy the magic that reading makes possible, and especially the knowledge that learning can be fun.

Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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