Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

The Reading Lesson

"As I began to listen to them, they began to speak to me." - Peter

My arts and crafts class was made up of students who could not speak English, were thrown out of their shop and phys. ed. classes for behavior unbecoming a student, (or anyone else) and members of the football and basket basketball teams who needed something to take and pass. No one was interested in or had any background in crafts. Neither the students nor the teacher, me. I was a painting major in college, and fresh from a masters in fine arts in the same media. Painters did not do crafts. Crafts were what my mother did with raffia and silver foil and interesting shaped bottles. Being the most recently hired and most junior member of the art department were my only two qualifications for the assignment. And so both students and teacher were in arts and crafts 1 (also A/C 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) by default and we all knew it. None of us liked it, and none of us knew how to do it. In addition to these credentials, as a first time teacher, I didn’t know how to teach. All of us knew that.

Somewhat into the term, having explored the possibilities of potato prints on bed sheets, soap sculpture of their pets, (it turns out they didn’t have pets) raffia and silver foil covered interesting bottles, with success after success under my belt, I was emboldened to try something more ambitious. I settled on making linolium cut prints, illustrating a piece of inspirational writing of their choice, and as an additional surprise and treat for the students, all the students’ work to be gathered into hand sown books, one given to each student. Explaining this terrific idea to the class, I was rewarded by the same degree of enthusiasm that all my terrific ideas were met with; those that were sleeping stayed asleep, those who did not speak English waited politely for the period to end, the members of the basketball and football teams continued practicing their respective sports with crayons and erasers and the hats and books and shoes of the students who did not speak English.

As I walked around the room encouraging this student and that, giving shoes, hats, and books back to those who owned them, I came upon one very large basketball player who wasn’t doing anything at all, just sitting glumly. Ah, my chance to make a difference in the life of one of my students. I said to the large basketball player, “What’s up?” He remained looking at the place where the ceiling and the wall meet. He neither looked at me nor said anything to me. Now I had him on my side, so I continued our conversation.

Is there something about the assignment that I can help you with, something that I can explain?

After a while, his gaze slid down the wall, glanced across the field of students and desks and finally turned to me. Still silent, he explored my face for what I took to be some sign of intelligence. Finally he said,

I’m not doin this shit.

Perfect! Now we had something to talk about, and if I had had the courage to say so then, something in common.

Look, this is the kind of thing I thought you would really like. You find something you read that really meant something special to you, and then you create some kind of image that expresses how you felt after reading it. What could be a more meaningful art project than that?

He raised his head, looked me in the eye, and said more slowly this time so that even an art teacher of an introductory arts and crafts class would understand.

I’m not doin this shit.

Now we were getting somewhere.

OK. Let’s see if I can help here. What piece of inspirational writing have you selected? Perhaps I can help you think of some image that might express that.

Look, man, I didn’t get no writing that means anything to me, so I’m not doin nothing.

He slipped back in his chair and resumed looking at the crease between the ceiling and the wall. This guy is not getting away from me that easy, I have lots of other ways to arouse his enthusiasm for arts and crafts. True, none of my other great ideas have worked with this, or for that matter, any other student before, but I’m not done yet. So I say,

Look, I have a whole bunch of books on poetry here, why don’t you read through some of these, and I bet you’ll find something, then we’ll work on developing some sort of image after. Whaddaya say?

Silence, a long breath, finally turning to me and motioning to me to bend down so he could say something privately to me, he says this,

Look, man, I aint readen nothen cause I can’t read nothen. You unerstan? I can’t read. Period. Now take that shit outta my face. Just gimme some paper and stuff and I’ll make sumpen. Lem me be.

I lived all my twenty four years in New York City, seen lots of people, went to school and work with all kinds of people, I had never personally met anyone over four years old who couldn’t read. Here was this adult, in school, a junior or a senior, nice enough on occasion to me, very popular in school, and he just said he couldn’t read. In New York City. In Brooklyn. I grew up in Brooklyn, every kid in Brooklyn could read, my cousins could read, all my dopy friends could read, so could every adult I ever knew. How could you live in America without being able to read?

I said to (I’ll call him Jess) Jess,

Scoot over Jess.

Then, sitting on the same bench as him, I said,

Did you mean you can’t read well, or you can’t read period?
Period, really?
Except for you know some words here and there, period.
Jess, you want to do something about that? I could teach you how to read.

Silence, eyes staring intently at his huge hands.

Lissen, Mr. London, reading is nuthen.  There’s nuthen I need in reading. I got everything I need right now. Anyway, I can’t do it. Forget it Mr. London. You’re buggen me. Drop it.

Jess, I may not be the greatest arts and crafts teacher in the world, but I gotta tell you something that you really must know; there is a tremendous power you don’t have that everybody else has because you don’t read. I’m not even going to speak about the joy of reading some stuff, but…

Listen, man, I heard all that shit before a million times. There aint nothen in reading that has anything to do with me or my life. I know how to do my life fine, and I don’t need nothen from all that shit in books and newspapers cause I don’t give a fuck about theys lives and they don’t give a fuck about mine. I’m doin fine just the way I am. Come on, man, just gimme some paper and I’ll draw you a picture.
Jess, we’re not finished with this.

I elected to teach in this high school because it was the sixties, because I was fresh out of graduate school and wanting to do some good in the world, something real, practical. And because I loved art, making images of a world better than the world I happened to born into. I wanted other kids who had even less than me to have at least as much as me. Like my entire crowd, my wife and I had been active in the civil rights movement, and therefore I wanted to work in a school in a district with kids suffocated by their poverty and ignorance, suffocating right in the midst of the Big Apple - the thought control center and greatest cultural spawning grounds of the whole planet.  So Jess was not getting off that easy. I am going to teach this kid how to read. At the moment of our conversation I didn’t know how, but so what? I had inadvertently dropped through a hole in the flimsy floor of my good for nothing teaching, and fell hard on something solid, real, necessary; teaching that just might be good for something.  Something would come up.

Being involved in the civil rights movement, and bamboozled by the very kids I so much wanted to reach and enrich, I had been reading a number of books in the area of Black Liberation, “Manchild in the Promised Land,” “The Wretched of the Earth,” and “The Autobiography of Malcom X.” I decided to bring in the Malcom X book and show it to Jess. It was a scathing and highly prejudicial, even racist account of the Black American male view of themselves and the White majority. But it was the book of the moment, especially in New York, and I thought it might be the something that could get Jess to become interested enough in reading to learn how to do it.

I got the class going on something to do with split peas, fava beans and colored tissue paper, images of themselves engaged in some favorite sports activities. (I was trying to be relevant.)  When (most) everyone settled down to work on their take on what I might have said, I walked over to Jess’s table, sat down next to him, showed him the cover with Malcom X’s photo, which he recognized, opened the slim volume ceremoniously, and I read this:

I carried about fifty sticks in a small package inside my coat, under my armpit, keeping my arm flat against my side. Moving about, I kept my eyes open. If anybody looked suspicious, I’d quickly cross the street, or go through a door, or turn a corner, loosening my arm enough to let the package drop. At night, when I usually did my selling, any suspicious person wouldn’t be likely to see the trick. If I decided I had been mistaken, I’d go back and get my sticks. (p. 117)

Jess: You shitten me, man. You’re maken that shit up!
Me: No I’m not. It says all that right here.
Jess: Bull shit. Malcom said that? And wrote it in a book?
Marvin, come over here a minute. Marvin sit down, and I’m going to give you something to read. You ever see this book before?
OK, read this right here.

“It was then that I began carrying a little .25 automatic. I got it, for some reefers, from an addict who I knew had stolen it somewhere. I carried it pressed under my belt right down the center of my back. Someone had told me cops never hit there in any routine patting down. “ (P.117)

Jess: Marvin, Mr. London put you up to this?
No man, I don’t even know what’s going on.
Jess: OK Marvin, thanks, Go on back to work.
            Lemme see that book. You mean people write that stuff in books?

Me: Jess, you don’t know the half of it. Malcolm X never went past the eighth grade. He’s now in his twenty’s, in prison, and just about illiterate. Listen to this:

“I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there- I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.” (P.197)

Me: He then teaches himself how to read, one word at a time, often sitting at the bars of his cell after lights out, copying words from the dictionary. He goes on.

“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. “ (P.206)

Jess: Man, this guy is talken about MY life. That’s me in there, that’s the way it is with me! Lemme see that book again. Show me the place you been reading at. There must be some words I know. I know all the “the’s” “I,” “and, “ “that to me”….

Jess wrapped his hands around his head, sank into his seat, looked up at the ceiling, flipped through the pages of the book looking for other words he might recognize I guess, stared at the image of Malcolm X on the cover, looks straight ahead, and says,

OK, you can do it. You can show me how you do it.
Jess, you’re on. We start tomorrow.

Then Jess gets up to walk around the room, see what’s doing.

I don’t know how to teach reading. I can barely teach art. But there is a girl in another class of mine who I know wants to be an elementary school teacher and is always helping me out to keeping the other kids from stealing the larger items. I ask her; is she interested in tutoring someone in reading? Sure! She says. I say;  He’s big and he’s tough, and he’s the star of the basketball team and he can’t read but wants to learn. Still want the job? Sure!   We’ve got to keep this just between the three of us. Sure! OK, Third period, arts and crafts, starting tomorrow.  I’ll give you an “A” in something for pay.  Mr. London!

Jess, this is Liz; she’s going to help your reading.
Liz, this is Jess, he’s …
Mr. London, I know who Jess is.
Look, Lisa…
OK, Liz, I don’t know how you are gonna do this, cause, you know… But we gotta start with this book here, (giving her my copy of “The Autobiography of Malcom X”).  I know some words in this one already.
Fine, Jess, Let’s go.

I set them up at the back of the room with no other students nearby. That was it. The two of them came in every day, went right to the back of the room and got to work. From time to time I went back there to check on things and asked, how’s it going? She said, Fine. He said nothing.

But from that day on things changed.

Jess came to school regularly, and at the start of class, at least to my class.

He no longer played hoops with the Spanish speaking kids shoes.

Rather than walking around the class all period or going to the bathroom several times, once in his chair at the back of the room he stayed there. No more bladder problems.

Towards the beginning of Jess’s studies, the rest of the class still behaved the way they did as before. That soon changed. When someone was making too much of a fuss, Jess would look up from his lesson, bellow the culprit’s name,

Stash, my man, shut up and sit down. Don’t you see I’m trying to do somethin here? 

Henry, if I gotta pick my fat ass up outta this seat, and come over there, you gonna get even uglier than you already is.

But mostly it wasn’t that kind of thing at all. I think it was simply that one of their own was actually studying, learning, talking softly, listening intently, keeping focused, wasn’t clowning around. Jess, the star of the basketball team who never learned how to read was learning how to read right before their eyes. Maybe the rest of these kids never saw what a serious, self motivated student looks like at work, and what that work takes.

So things settled down. Stealing other kids clothing and playing ball with it was evidently seen for the simply stupid thing it was, and it stopped. Other kids came to class with undone homework or unsolved problems, asked for help, and got it. Kids still clowned around, but not as much at other’s expense. I listened to them longer without interruption. Students started to listen to what I had to say, (more often). I started to be more interested in them, their lives, their aims, their needs, took note of their talents and wit and intelligence. I began coming to them, rather than demanding they come to me, and the treasure trove of art that I sat upon.  As I began to listen to them, they began to speak to me. As we spoke together, I shaped my lesson not around art, but around them, helping them to speak more fully and clearly through the leveraging empowers of color, shape, texture, form, pattern, icon and symbol. As I became a more responsive teacher, they became more responsive students. The tone of the room shifted from general indifference and mild anarchy, to purposeful engagement and unheard of mutual decorum. Should one of the other little charmers get a bit rambunctious, Jess, and now anybody else (who was on the basketball or football team) would rise to the occasion and quell the outbreak, mostly with only a glance but if necessary, a half rise out of their seat in the direction of the culprit.

Our class was no longer two camps of estranged partners (students here, teacher there) sharing a common space and time but little else. Because those two worked together so well, their relationship set a model from which no other relationship could diverge to any significant degree.

But did the art get better too? I thought so, they thought so. But really, folks, aesthetics was at that moment of my career and their lives, not top priority.

It’s towards the end of the term, I’m walking around the class, checking out how everyone is doing, and I go to the back of the room to visit Jess and Liz.

Me: How you two doing?
Fine, Liz says.
Jess: Hey, man, listen to this.


            Jess is reading.

~ Peter London                        _____________________________________________________

The Autobiography of Malcom X , Ballantine Books, New York, 1965


  1. This is the most inspirational story of transformation I have ever read. I can't wait to meet my new students on Tuesday and hear what they have to say about their lives.

  2. Thank you for reading, Jane! I hope your new year is amazing.


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