Read an Excerpt
Do It Better!
It is chiefly through books that we enjoy intercourse with superior minds. In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours. God be thanked for books. They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. Books are true levelers. They give to all who will faithfully use them, the society, the spiritual presence, of the best and greatest of our race.
William Ellery Channing
Benjamin, is this your report card?' my mother asked as she picked up the folded white card from the table.
'Uh, yeah,' I said, trying to sound casual. Too ashamed to hand it to her, I had dropped it on the table, hoping that she wouldn't notice until after I went to bed.
It was the first report card I had received from Higgins
Elementary School since we had moved back from Boston to
Detroit, only a few months earlier.
I had been in the fifth grade not even two weeks before everyone considered me the dumbest kid in the class and frequently made jokes about me. Before long I too began to feel as though I really was the most stupid kid in fifth grade. Despite
Mother's frequently saying, 'You're smart, Bennie. You can do anything you want to do,' I did not believe her.
No one else in school thought I was smart, either.
Now, as Mother examined my report card, she asked,
'What's this grade in reading?' (Her tone of voice told me that I
was in trouble.) Although I was embarrassed, I did not think too much about it. Mother knew that I wasn't doing well in math,
but she did not know I was doing so poorly in every subject.
While she slowly read my report card, reading everything one word at a time, I hurried into my room and started to get ready for bed. A few minutes later, Mother came into my bedroom.
'Benjamin,' she said, 'are these your grades?' She held the card in front of me as if I hadn't seen it before.
'Oh, yeah, but you know, it doesn't mean much.'
'No, that's not true, Bennie. It means a lot.'
'Just a report card.'
'But it's more than that.'
Knowing I was in for it now, I prepared to listen, yet I was not all that interested. I did not like school very much and there was no reason why I should. Inasmuch as I was the dumbest kid in the class, what did I have to look forward to? The others laughed at me and made jokes about me every day.
'Education is the only way you're ever going to escape poverty,'
she said. 'It's the only way you're ever going to get ahead in life and be successful. Do you understand that?'
'Yes, Mother,' I mumbled.
'If you keep on getting these kinds of grades you're going to spend the rest of your life on skid row, or at best sweeping floors in a factory. That's not the kind of life that I want for you. That's not the kind of life that God wants for you.'
I hung my head, genuinely ashamed. My mother had been raising me and my older brother, Curtis, by herself. Having only a third-grade education herself, she knew the value of what she did not have. Daily she drummed into Curtis and me that we had to do our best in school.
'You're just not living up to your potential,' she said. 'I've got two mighty smart boys and I know they can do better.'
I had done my best --- at least I had when I first started at
Higgins Elementary School. How could I do much when I did not understand anything going on in our class?
In Boston we had attended a parochial school, but I hadn't learned much because of a teacher who seemed more interested in talking to another female teacher than in teaching us. Possibly,
this teacher was not solely to blame --- perhaps I wasn't emotionally able to learn much. My parents had separated just before we went to Boston, when I was eight years old. I
loved both my mother and father and went through considerable trauma over their separating. For months afterward, I
kept thinking that my parents would get back together, that my daddy would come home again the way he used to, and that we could be the same old family again --- but he never came back. Consequently, we moved to Boston and lived with Aunt
Jean and Uncle William Avery in a tenement building for two years until Mother had saved enough money to bring us back to Detroit.
Mother kept shaking the report card at me as she sat on the side of my bed. 'You have to work harder. You have to use that good brain that God gave you, Bennie. Do you understand that?'
'Yes, Mother.' Each time she paused, I would dutifully say those words.
'I work among rich people,
people who are educated,' she said. 'I watch how they act, and I know they can do anything they want to do. And so can you.' She put her arm on my shoulder. 'Bennie, you can do anything they can do --- only you can do it better!'
Mother had said those words before. Often. At the time, they did not mean much to me. Why should they? I really believed that I was the dumbest kid in fifth grade, but of course, I never told her that.
'I just don't know what to do about you boys,' she said.
'I'm going to talk to God about you and Curtis.' She paused,
stared into space, then said (more to herself than to me), 'I need the Lord's guidance on what to do. You just can't bring in any more report cards like this.'