This week marked "Read Across America Day," a day to encourage and celebrate the joy of reading, especially among our children. Read Across America was established by the National Education Association in 1998 and falls on Dr. Seuss' birthday, March 2. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump referred to Dr. Seuss as part of their proclamations for the day. In 2016, Obama called Dr. Seuss "one of America's revered wordsmiths," and said that "Theodor Seuss Geisel -- or Dr. Seuss -- used his incredible talent to instill in his most impressionable readers universal values we all hold dear.
"Through a prolific collection of stories, he made children see that reading is fun, and in the process, he emphasized respect for all; pushed us to accept ourselves for who we are; challenged preconceived notions and encouraged trying new things; and by example, taught us that we are limited by nothing but the range of our aspirations and the vibrancy of our imaginations."
This year, there was no mention of Dr. Seuss in President Joe Biden's proclamation, and Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced on the same day that it would "cease publication and licensing" of six of his books, noting that "these books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong."
I can remember having Dr. Seuss read to me and reading Dr. Seuss to my children. What I don't remember is what gender or color the characters were; I always identified myself with the main character.
My mother, who was a math teacher at Carrollton High School, often gave the Dr. Seuss book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" to her students when they graduated. She also gave one to me. The story is about setting out in life, all the places that you'll go, the challenges that you'll see and how you will overcome them again and again. The storyline says that success is "98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed."
The challenges include the waiting place, where everyone is just waiting; and the fact that things will go well, "Except when they don't. / Because, sometimes, they won't. / I'm afraid that sometimes / you'll play lonely games too. / Games you can't win / 'cause you'll play against you."
That's where we are as a country today. Playing games against ourselves. We worry more about the old illustrations and characters in books, rather than about children reading and attending school today. We are caught up in a game of division and reduction rather than addition and multiplication.
This Tuesday, Arielle Mitropoulos of ABC News wrote an article titled, "Thousands of students reported 'missing' from school systems nationwide amid COVID-19 pandemic." After almost a year of actions that were intended to quickly flatten the curve so that we could return to normal lives, tens of millions of children are still home from school. She cites a study estimating that "approximately 3 million of the 'most educationally marginalized students in the country' may have been missing from school since March 2020, when the pandemic forced school closures."
The children who are attending school virtually may be falling behind as well, as many parents are trying to work full time and care for their young children full time, an impossible task. This has been happening for almost a year, long past the initial three-week curve-flattening period we were led to believe would suffice. Mental health is at a crisis level; my friends who are counselors are fully booked.
Instead of gathering together and addressing this crisis as a nation, we are pitting ourselves against one another. By classifying or casting individuals as no more than intersections of their race, gender, etc., we are no longer noticing people as distinct individuals who share similarities.
This is dehumanizing. While we might have some common experiences based on external attributes that are easily categorized, we have more common experiences as humans. This is the goal of reading: to share common experiences and bind us together so that we can help one another, rather than tear one another apart.
"You see us as you want to see us," wrote the Breakfast Club to the teacher who was overseeing Saturday detention. "In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found is that each of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess, and a criminal."
My point is that each of us can determine if our goal is to sort ourselves into competing factions or to create ties that bind us together. We can focus on what makes us different or on seeing the connections we have to one another. This process is more additive than divisive, but it may require us to have greater aspirations and greater vibrancy of our imaginations.