Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Learning to Read

BOND: And what about the first grade teacher?

CANADA: Well, first grade — I had this wonderful teacher in the first grade who was trying to connect with me because I was a kid who was easily distracted. I had learned sort of the ABC's and stuff like that and first grade to me was just very boring, and I just wasn’t focused. And she kept trying to get me focused in the class, and she tried everything—painting and I wasn’t really into painting, and she tried poetry. She just got a book and she started reading this book and I remember sitting in the back of the classroom and she was reading. It was about this guy who had these eggs and the eggs were green and he didn't eat them on a house and he didn't eat them with a mouse and he didn’t eat them here or there, and I had never heard Dr. Seuss before and I just remember thinking, well, that is most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. It was just amazing to me and I said, "Excuse me, could you read that book again?" And she read it again to the class and I just — it was so great. I had to hear it again. I asked her to read it again. She was like, “Geoff, we have to move on." She said, “Take it home and read it at home.” So I took it home and had my mother read it and the next day I came back to school, hand was up the first thing, “Teacher, could you read the — “ And she said, “No, no, I can’t read it.” And I was crestfallen and I just — and she said, “Well, go, in the back and you read it,” and I went in the back and I read the book. It was first grade. I had never been taught to read.

And when I tell this story, people said, "Well, don’t you know what it takes to teach a kid to read," and I said, "Yeah, when I was at the ed school at Harvard, I taught reading." That was one of the things that I really took classes in, but I learned to read because this wonderful teacher just kept trying to connect with me until she got to me and just opened up a whole new universe and when people sometimes say, you know, "All children can learn," but they don’t really mean it, I know, no, absolutely all children can learn. This is really about whether or not we’ve found the right key to unlock that sort of I think great potential that people have inside of them and this teacher did it and changed my life and I read — look, by the end of the first grade, I had read every single Dr. Seuss book in the school, everything, and I was absolutely convinced that my life was over because I went crying to my mother and said, “I’m only in the first grade, I’ve already read all the great literature in America,” and I was just really — and she turned me on to Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and I had poems and I always had a book of poetry and I was sort of tough growing up in the South Bronx, this really tough inner-city neighborhood, and I was reading a little Geoffrey Chaucer or something, some Canterbury Tales, and it was all because this teacher sort of opened up my eyes to literature and poetry in the first grade.