Men Answering the Call; Making A Difference

Principal Pamela J. Powell (left front) with students at the Matteson Elementary School in the south suburb and men from
the surrounding area and beyond who come to the school to help children read on Thursday mornings with John Fountain.
By John W. Fountain
Melvin Wormely is among the men who read on Thursdays.
Update on “Father’s Day Thursdays” at Matteson Elementary School: About 30 men showed up—from far and near this week. Among them a man named Gabriel. From Village of Matteson Police officers, to a pastor, to a firefighter, to men of all walks, they filed through the doors to read to the children of the Matteson School, wearing shirts and sweaters or ties and uniforms, or a clergy collar.
Hallways were dotted with desks and chairs as children read to men who sat listening intently, sometimes helping to sound out words, smiling, encouraging, commending. Inside some classrooms, the children read to men or a man read aloud, standing in front of the class, students hanging on every word. These were among the obvious observations.

"They see themselves and these children as part of “our” village—as being connected regardless of race, class or any other manmade boundary."

These were not:
That the number of men who have signed on to read has grown from one to two to three to seven to 20—and now, almost 30. That the spirit of the men, who have answered my call to please join me on Thursday mornings for 45 minutes at the south suburban elementary school and BE the difference they want to see, filled Classroom 3 as they selected books from our rolling cart.
Reading to a child can help make a difference. 
It also wouldn’t be obvious that none of these men who have shown up so far has a child or grandchildren at the school but see themselves and these children as part of “our” village—as being connected regardless of race, class or any other manmade boundary. Perhaps it might not be overwhelmingly obvious that there is a growing spirit of excitement on Thursdays among the men and the children and evidence that we are making a difference.
Then there is this:
After I spoke with the men Thursday morning, before Principal Pamela J. Powell led us to classrooms, one brother, new to our reading group, needed to say something.
“I’m deaf,” he announced, his voice booming as other men looked on.
“But I read about what you all were doing and I wanted to be of some service. I’m a man... I want to do my part to help... And I figured if you could use me, I want to help…”
His name is Gabriel. I was deeply moved, almost at a loss for words, by his declaration. Renewed in spirit by his willingness and also the willingness of all of those who have answered the call in the last few months.
Despite his deafness, Gabriel said he could read to the children. Despite his uncertainty of whether his deafness would be perceived as an inability or impediment to him being welcomed to join us in our endeavor, he showed up. He showed up.
Like the more than two-dozen men who could have chosen to do something else early on a Thursday morning—whether working, or sleeping, sipping coffee or lounging, or nothing at all. Instead they also chose to show up. Why? Because they care.
“I’m not helpless,” Gabriel continued. “I just have a problem.”
          “As men, we all have an issue,” I responded as the men laughed. “We’re happy you’re here. We can use you.”
          Honestly, I thought about some of the men who weren’t here: The fathers of the 368 children at Matteson School. The men I saw in September when I spoke at the school’s annual Men of Matteson Day. The men who signed “commitment” cards to at some point this academic year to return to the school and volunteer or read. I thought about the brother I know who seems to think this is all just a waste of time.
         I thought about how many more we could use to help us in this endeavor to uplift our community through education and literacy and the impactful presence of even a few good men.
            Later I also thought about how having police officers reading with little black boys can help mend and build a village. How a boy bitter and wounded by the desertion of his father might smile again and be moved toward healing by the presence of men at his school on Thursday mornings who keep their promise to show up again and again and again to spend part of their day reading with him.
            I thought about the smiles on the faces of the boys and girls at Matteson as we read. I thought about the smiles on the faces of the men, marching through the halls toward classrooms to make a difference. I thought about the good that could come to other schools—to us all—if as men at last we stood to reclaim our communities, one school, one child at a time. I thought about Gabriel.
            And I thought: Man, what’s your excuse?

One hallway at Matteson Elementary School in south suburban Chicago where men in the community read
to children on Thursday mornings for about 45 minutes each week with the aim of making a difference.
(John W. Fountain, PHOTOS)