reading at desk

That time my high school principal thought yelling would be a great way to inspire me to read

I’m sure I’m not the only person that has random, unimportant memories of long-ago events. I keep remembering a time in high school where my high school principal yelled at me for borrowing a library book.

It was his idea that on Wednesdays we’d read a book for 22-minutes during homeroom. Or as the contemporaries called it, “Activity Period”. What a dumb, soul-sucking name.

Wednesday’s “activity” was silent, sustained reading, which begat the soul-sucking SSR acronym straight from some equally wretched “workgroup”.

I had finished whatever book I had been reading about ten minutes into the allotted time. Not being a psychopath, I wasn’t keen on just starting right back on page 1. So I asked to go to the library, was granted permission, and walked downstairs. After a few minutes I picked up another and walked back upstairs.

Just as I exited the library, the principal turned to me and yelled, “Where is your book young man?” It was in my hand. In fact, it was the only thing I had on me. In retrospect, I probably should have asked if he had just been staring at the sun and couldn’t see it. Maybe he thought I had come downstairs for tea.

“Just finished one and came to get another,” I said, holding up the book. I didn’t stop walking.

Then I remember turning around and standing there watching him yell and stomp around because I wasn’t actively reading. No one else was around. It was just him and me in the hallway. My only hope is that the expression on my face was clear I thought he was insane.

He told me I needed to be reading “right now”. Short of sitting down in the hallway, I didn’t know what else he expected me to do. I’m sure I just said “Okay” and walked on.

I also remember the feeling of losing all respect for the man at that moment. Now, all these years later, the fact I even remember this at all irritates me. Literally every time I finish a book or pick up another I think, “Should I call him and ask if it’s okay that I finished a book today?” What a terrible thing to think.

Today I look back on this and think three things:

  1. We know task-switching leaves “residue” on our brains. You can’t go from, say, cooking a new recipe to replying to emails without your brain thinking about the last thing you just did for a while. Most estimates are about 15 minutes to fully switch tasks. So in a 22-minute reading slot, about 7 minutes are actually useful. What a waste.
  2. I’m sure the whole exercise was designed to check a box at the end of the school year to say, “The kids read a combined 9 hours of sustained independent reading.” And really, isn’t that sad for any activity? “Over six months, we spent 9 hours reading!” I’m sure it’s also the only way they could guarantee some people even read anything at all.
  3. The most damning legacy of our schools is that they are centers for knowledge transfer, not a place for instilling a love of learning. Events like this are why fully a third of Americans admit to not reading a single book in a year.

We say that phrase “love of learning” and a lot of people roll their eyes. It is a wimpy phrase. But we should really think about it as “Teaching people how to do hard things with our minds”. Everyone has to do this to get ahead. You want to learn how to write a new programming language, drive or operate a new piece of machinery, install something, offer a compelling report, manage your health, learn new exercises, or design a new tool? You’re going to need to have sustained and focused effort at that task. It’s during processes like these to improve ourselves or our work that we have displayed an ability to grok new things. To learn!

Reading just happens to be the most common activity people do that requires a little thought. Watching TV, for instance, is passive. Reading requires comprehension of the words and, in most cases, imagining the events and people involved in your head. Like how driving to the store down the street is passive, but walking there is active. Neither is likely hard, but one is certainly more active.

For most adults who don’t enjoy reading today, we’d do well to ask ourselves why. I now recognize I struggled to find books I actually enjoyed reading. It took me over 10 years to realize I liked biographies and memoirs. I read one in 10th grade — a book I picked up from a Walden Books, but didn’t make the connection that I liked it because it was a memoir. I started reading more from time to time, but it took me another ten years to figure that out and learn that fiction just isn’t my jam. In retrospect, I don’t recall there being a lot of historical biographies on the shelves of my school library. Maybe there were, but I just hadn’t figured that out.

But militant yelling and drilling don’t help a 15-year-old, either. Maybe my principal was having a bad day. I’m sure he thought it was my responsibility to make sure I had a book to get through all 22 minutes of reading. But there he is, in the back of my head spitting fire every time I need a new book. I’ve recorded 380 read finished books since I started tracking them on Goodreads. That’s 380 times that memory has hijacked my thoughts.

We talk a lot about the educators who shape our lives and make a long-lasting impact on us and our kids. But we should also talk about the educators who did the opposite. If we do, it might remind educators that as hard as their job is, every interaction can be mind-altering.

Monument Circle Opera House

200 years of Indianapolis

How could I not write about the bicentennial of my adopted home of Indianapolis? What a year for a 200th birthday. Indy, you don’t look a day over 190.

As much of a struggle this year has been, it’s hardly the worst thing Indianapolis has endured since 1820. The Civil War, 1918 and 1919 pandemics, the KKK, and the Great Depression all leap to mind.

To be sure, Indianapolis is one of America’s most promising cities. At this juncture of almost nothing, Indianapolis was established. No major roads, railways, or rivers existed at the founding of our city, not beyond the White River and the nub of Fall Creek. The National Road, Meridian Street, Michigan Road, rail lines, and airways were yet to be built. And so we did.

Indy’s proud position as the “Crossroads of America” gets derided by some as a “place you go through to get somewhere else”, but for much of our history, Indy moved more trains and more people than just about anywhere else outside Philadelphia and New York.

Once we were the gateway to the west. Among the first regiments to send troops by Lincoln’s side in the Civil War. We had the first plant to produce sliced bacon. Kurt Vonnegut. The first Union Station. Madame Walker. The Gatling gun. David Letterman. And of course, the 500-mile race.

Perhaps more than any other, Eli Lilly helped put Indianapolis on the map, and much of our city’s modern growth, arts, and culture is owed to the work of the Colonel.

Our first libraries, sewer systems and drains, universities like Butler, and public schools have given way to many changes. But their impacts from the 19th century are still felt today. We have all been enlarged by the decisions and work done by our forefathers and foremothers. Make no mistake: our futures are joined with theirs.

Cities are much more than just financial centers or where we work. Indianapolis is where Indiana comes to wine and dine and enjoy culture and the arts. Indianapolis is our government seat, our meeting place, our provenience of vital medical and educational centers, and our originator of ideas. Our whole way of life in Indiana depends on Indianapolis.

We wax nostalgic about small towns and build suburbs on top of suburbs. But the great source of American history and strength, culture, wealth, and opportunity, is in cities like Indianapolis.

We can not escape or ignore the troubles Indianapolis faces — or any city. We can not cling to mere hope problems will just go away or resolve themselves. What to do about violent crime, hunger and suffering, homelessness, the degradation of the poorest among us? To say nothing about the health and survival of us all amid COVID-19, financial calamity, and who knows what else.

For much of our history, cities led the way in America in how to solve the terrible problems of our humanity. Partnerships with universities, grants, and stark examinations of the issues as they are, not as we think they are, have paid dividends over the years. We’ve tamed past pandemics and illness by pursuing, at considerable cost, infrastructure and critical medical pursuits.

All of this begins with understanding our history. America would do well to understand that as a whole. Our plunge into Vietnam or Afghanistan without understanding its history has shown us that. Locally, what is our history with alcohol and drug addiction, community response to epidemics, or violent crime? Even Dillinger’s father thought Indianapolis was corrupting his son, prompting them to move to Mooresville.

More recently, the pursuit of highways and other destructive construction marches through parts of our city without much understanding for the history of a neighborhood because their importance is not understood. You have to know what people have been through to know what people want and what they don’t want. What people have been through is what we call history, and Indianapolis has 200 years of it.

The opportunities for Indianapolis are at once boundless and seemingly in peril. But the work this city has done for the advancements of innovation, science, medicine, law, and the arts has become so valuable.

Let’s do the kind of work now so people 200 years from now will think of us as kind, generous, and the right people at the right time. Let’s be sure they know we had the courage of convictions to do hard things. Our present was joined with those who came before us. The destiny of millions is joined with us today.

We must ensure that in 200 years, the residents of Indianapolis will look upon us in history and say, “It’s good that they were there, and despite the problems of their day, we’re all the better off for it.”