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February 29 teaches lesson about the power of one day

While one day has the power to change someone’s life, some things, such as building reading skills, take time; my English class this year exemplifies that truth.
While one day has the power to change someone’s life, some things, such as building reading skills, take time; my English class this year exemplifies that truth.

I love February 29. It’s both a gift and a call to reflection, a reminder of the importance – and the limitations – of a single day.

Nobody understood the power of a day better than the ancient Greeks. You’ve got to hand it to their playwrights. Stand a tragic hero on a stage and give him the worst day of his life and voila, you have a terrific play that resonates millennia later.

In my teaching life, I have those kind of singular days.

Six weeks into second semester, I lost a struggling student one day. I’d seen him slipping almost from the beginning – classwork not finished, his attention elsewhere. He told me that school has always been hard for him and he’d rather spend his time making money at his minimum wage job than doing the work to earn his high school diploma. Nothing I did or said interested or motivated him in my junior English class. Nor was he passing his other classes. He was failing himself, but I felt I was failing him, too. Then one day he had enough and quit. His decision wasn’t sudden or even unexpected, but on that day when he walked out of high school for the last time, he walked into a future that offers little hope of real success.

Success can be as slow and incremental as failure and tragedy are swift and sudden. The Greeks knew that, too. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Creon says, “Time alone shows the goodness in a man – One day is enough to tell you all his evil.”

In that same class of juniors, I have many others who are also struggling. For most of them, reading is a chore. They aren’t very skilled at it so they avoid it. That’s why I make them practice every day by starting class with ten minutes of silent reading. The students are free to read whatever they choose, but all have settled into longer novels from the school library.

After I start the timer, I read a book while trying to keep an eye on how my students are doing. When the semester started they only pretended to read. Their books were open but they kept glancing up at the timer, waiting for the torture to end. Then slowly I noticed that they were actually turning the pages of their books. They stopped looking at the timer. Whenever they had any free moments at all – waiting for the rest of the class to finish a quiz, for instance – they pulled their library books back out.

This week, Brandon asked if we could have twenty minutes instead of ten to read.

“I know,” he said, looking at my raised eyebrow. “I’m just as surprised as you are. I haven’t read a book since 5th grade.”

I don’t know why he hasn’t. Lots of things conspire to keep kids from reading for pleasure – a shift in the language arts curriculum from emphasizing novels to focusing on short nonfiction, lack of access to books, plenty of electronic and other distractions. No matter the reason, developing fluency enough to enjoy reading takes time.

More than a day, of course. But a day is a start. Or ten minutes in English class, and then reading another chapter on the school bus on your ride home, and finishing the next chapter before you go to bed, and doing the same tomorrow and every day, and before you know it you have finished the first book you’ve read since 5th grade.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: kmcspadden@comporium.net.

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