Barry Saunders

From activists to police to your humble columnist, we all must do our part

CMPD lieutenant John L. Thorton, right, along with officers Brian Russell, left, and Mike Travis read to young residents of the Woodstone apartment complex as part of a community outreach project.
CMPD lieutenant John L. Thorton, right, along with officers Brian Russell, left, and Mike Travis read to young residents of the Woodstone apartment complex as part of a community outreach project. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Hey fat boy, why don’t you go into prison and read to your homeys?

The caller wasn’t nearly that nice, but that’s the G-rated version of his call.

On Monday, I challenged young people who believe black lives matter to shed their picket signs and indignation for a while and try a different tack.

Want to prove that you believe #Black Lives Matter? I asked.

Go into these neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh where poor kids are more likely to fall behind in school very early, and help ensure that they don’t. That’s important because statistics from the Department of Justice and other sources show that children who are not reading at grade level by fourth grade are as much as 85 percent more likely to end up in prison or on welfare.

Venturing forth into the schools and after-school programs armed with books – not picket signs – is a great way for these activists who obviously care to arrest that academic slide and possibly prevent an actual arrest.

Everett Ward, interim president at St. Augustine’s University, said football players there volunteer to read at a local boys and girls club, and that all students at the school are required to participate in community outreach programs.

We shouldn’t put the entire onus on young people, though. There are enough retired educators and literate regular old people who could volunteer to tutor kids. Surely, y’all have seen every rerun of “Two and a Half Men” by now, right? If not, you can DVR it and watch after you go forth and make the world a better place.

That’s what Barbara Martin, Literacy Missions Coordinator for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, is doing. Martin, a retired Wake County public school teacher, said the BSC trains volunteers to help kids who need help. If you want to help, go to www.ncbaptist.org and click on “literacy mission.”

Paul Scott, a Durham minister, has issued a challenge to educators, churches and parents to read at least one book on black history to students each month. Right on.

Just as we shouldn’t put on activist young people or old people the onus for preventing another generation of kids from dropping out of school and into the criminal justice system, neither should we put it all on cops.

In Charlotte, fortunately, some cops have put it on themselves. After writing Monday’s column, I read a Charlotte Observer story about police officers who volunteer to read to and mentor young kids at an apartment complex.

At my old apartment complex in Atlanta, where the law was seen as a hostile, I once asked a cop, ‘How come y’all only come around here when something bad happens?’ Because something bad’s always happening here, he said.

Kids giggling at Officer Friendly reading “Green Eggs & Ham” will probably be less likely to hear him reading them their rights 10 years hence. At my old apartment complex in Atlanta, where the law was seen as a hostile, occupying force that only showed up to crack heads and bark orders, I once asked a cop, “How come y’all only come around here when something bad happens?”

Because something bad’s always happening here, he said.

Dang. He was right, but I was only paying $200 a month for two bedrooms and wasn’t about to leave.

You may feel like my anonymous caller, that it’s presumptuous to ask others to go into prison and read to the dudes and dudettes therein when I won’t do it myself.

As he has for 20 years, he hung up without leaving a return phone number. That’s why I couldn’t tell him that I did go to Central Prison and met some dudes on death row several months ago.

True, I only did it once, but that wasn’t my fault. I thought the men in there and I had had a good fellowship, but for some reason, the Department of Correction decision-makers never invited me back.

I’d taken the orientation class one must take to volunteer at a prison, was told not to write about anything that happened inside, not to bring any contraband in or take any out, and not to get too close or fall in love.

Yeah, I laughed, too, but after the two killers in New York escaped this summer with the help of a prison employee who did just that, that admonition was not frivolous.

Just because they won’t let me in doesn’t mean that you can’t volunteer to read to or tutor someone who’s strayed, often because they fell behind in school, got frustrated, dropped out and felt they had no legal options for making a living. Better yet, you can volunteer to help them before they’re standing before a judge who holds their fate in her or his hands.

Me? I have got to be the only man in the world who tries to get into prison but who, like an undersized trout, keeps getting thrown back.

Cool. I just want the DOC administrators to remember that the next time I don’t want to be their guest.

  Comments