When I was about to turn 5, my mother enrolled me in Mrs. Cox Webb’s kindergarten. Mrs. Webb ran it out of her house overlooking the canal about five blocks from our house.
One of her sons, Clark, and I were the same age and Mrs. Webb was thought to have the best kindergarten program in our Alabama town at the time.
Remember, this was many years ago and public schools did not yet have kindergarten, much less pre-kindergarten. In Alabama, we still were in the throes of segregation. Education experts were just beginning to fully grasp the importance of such things. In fact, the value of reading to children was really just coming into focus.
Ironically, my parents — particularly my mother — got it.
She had read to me since my early arrival. The same for my brothers, who were at least a decade older than me.
The value of that reading — and having much older brothers — manifested itself in many ways. When I went to kindergarten in August of that first year, I actually wasn’t 5 yet. My 5th birthday wouldn’t come until early November.
When I started at Mrs. Webb’s, it became clear pretty quickly I was a little ahead of the curve. I already knew how to read, knew the alphabet and could count beyond 100. I knew the presidents, about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and other facts beyond my years.
Those were the benefits of having been read to.
So by the time I actually turned 5, I was a kindergarten drop out. Mrs. Webb told my mother I was bored and didn’t need her school. All I was doing was taking her away from trying to teach the 20 or so others in the school.
I suspect it also meant I wasn’t a nice kid because I knew everything, or at least acted like I did.
Rather than going “oh well, we can’t do anything about it,” my mother — Ernestine, Ernie for short — started looking at the possibilities. She discovered that because of my late birthday, I wouldn’t be able to start regular public school first grade the next year. That would mean it would be 18 months before I could start school and by then, I would be almost 7 in the first grade.
She understood it would drive me, her and anyone else who tried to teach me crazy.
So she did something pretty radical.
She contacted the state Department of Education to find out how she could start her own school. She went through the entire process to have the scholar certified so the next year, I could transfer to the public-school second grade.
She found a certified teacher — Mrs. Deloach — got four other students, found a location and did everything else to have Ernestine Rogers’ School certified by the state. That’s where I went to first grade. When I graduated, it closed down and I went to public school second grade.
I remembered all this earlier this week because Mother’s Day was approaching. But it wasn’t just Mother’s Day that jogged my memory. In fact, I owe the recollections to Johnnie Rasberry, the venerable president of the Clay County NAACP.
In some ways, Mr. Rasberry and my mother were alike. In the instant case, their understanding of the value of reading and education crossed generations. Furthermore, they were persistent.
Mr. Rasberry speaks so often to local groups that he sometimes is viewed as the “Man Who Cried Wolf,” the children’s fable that carried a valuable moral. He speaks out so often people start to tune him out. Ultimately, they miss a significant lesson.
He has an important message, one that resonated so clearly with me that my mother came to mind.
He is pushing an initiative, called “Parents as Teachers.” While he gets caught up sometimes in legalese and the history of legislative action, his message is just as important today as when my mother was rearing me all those years ago, ”We must get parents to read to their children.”
A speaker at the Clay County Head Start stressed the same message to fathers last week. “You are your child’s first teacher so act like it,” he told the dads.
Head Start centers everywhere have signs posted encouraging reading to children.
And Mr. Rasberry is taking the message to anyone who will listen. When he talks, he sounds like he wants money and directives and executive orders. All he really wants is elected officials, community leaders, employers, friends, neighbors and families to reach out to each other and encourage reading to children.
It’s not some big initiative, it’s one small step at a time, every hour of every day.
My mother used to say to me when we sat down, “We are going to read now.” It wasn’t a request, it was something important. If she were still alive, on this Mother’s Day, I would thank her for those moments.
Today, if we can get one more mother or father or grandparent or sister or brother or aunt or uncle to take up the effort, we will have made a difference. That’s as great a Mother’s Day gift as we can ever give.
Editor’s note: Columbus resident Steve Rogers is an award-winning editor and columnist whose opinions appear each week in The Packet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.