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  • Writer's pictureMike Cruz

Reading saved my life

This article was originally published on April 24, 2017 on Model D, an award-winning digital news magazine, and Detroit institution, focused on the dynamic communities, businesses, and residents of Detroit, Michigan.

Students from River Rouge and Western International high schools visit pages bookshop in northwest Detroit
Photo by: David Lewinski

A few years back, I was having a discussion with my students on how reading saved my life.

The story begins in southwest Detroit around the mid- to late-1970s. While some of my friends were getting arrested, addicted to drugs, and in some cases shot and killed, I was sitting in my room reading my dad's Kurt Vonnegut novels. One day, I tried to read a book at Patton Park in southwest Detroit and nearly got beat up by some kids making fun of me for reading.

A few years later, I went to Ann Arbor for the first time to pick up new sparring gloves from Kim's Martial Arts. One thing I noticed right away was people reading — in the parks, at coffee shops, on benches waiting for a bus — and no one was bothering them. Reading was the norm. I started driving all the way to Ann Arbor just to read. The vibe was different and I took in all the positive energy.

As my story continued, I was interrupted by a students asking, "Why don't you take us to Ann Arbor?"

I said, "Okay."

I did a shake down on as many teachers as I could and raised enough money to take each student to Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor where they could select any book of their choosing. They loved it. For most of the students, it was their first experience in a bookstore or owning a book of their choice. I've heard adults say, "These kids nowadays don't like to read anything." I disagree. I believe they don't like to read from the textbooks they're given at school.

As we walked from Literati Bookstore to the University of Michigan's Graduate Library, I gave the students an assignment: compare and contrast downtown Ann Arbor with your neighborhood. The comments were revealing. Some said, "Everybody looks smart," "Everybody looks happy," "People are reading," and "People smile more." My favorite comment was from an innocent 9th grade girl who exclaimed, "I haven't heard anyone say M.F.'er in two hours."

Later that day, a group of undergrad students were walking towards us at the steps of the graduate library. They were loud and holding up signs. The students were on alert wondering what it was about. As they got closer, we could read their signs that said "Free Hugs." They proceeded to hug, high-five, and joke around with our students. Our kids went from having their guard up to laughing and truly embracing this new experience. One kid asked, "Are you telling me they go around giving people hugs all day?" I said, "yep." He quietly replied, "That must be nice."

Usually, when these students see a loud gang approaching, it is not to give out hugs.

This idea went from a onetime field trip to Ann Arbor, to more trips to Ann Arbor and trips to Detroit bookstores. We visited John K. King Books, the largest used bookstore in Michigan, and then Pages Bookshop, a new independent bookstore with a great owner who loves having us bring the kids in. I tell the students they don't have to drive all the way to Ann Arbor to read and have a peaceful day. Detroit has great bookstores and perfect places to read in peace free of judgment. We have gone to Campus Martius when the weather permits, as well as the Detroit Public Library.

The most dangerous two hours in a teenager's life is from 3 to 5 p.m. They're out of school and unsupervised, as most parents have yet to arrive from work. Their biggest enemy is boredom. Before they do something destructive, like gang activity, drugs etc., they are bored. Bored kids in the suburbs might have many positive outlets to take up their idle time. But in the inner city, most options are dangerous or destructive. Even a simple walk around the block is not practical for our kids. Books are a great option. Many of my students live in less than desirable environments and lock themselves in their rooms and get lost in books. They have found the outlet reading provides.

This program has gone from shaking down teachers for money, starting a GoFundMe account, and is now in the process of becoming part of a new teacher-created non-profit organization called "Breaking the Cycle with Education." We have had tremendous support from people all over the state of Michigan. Now with our nonprofit status, we can finally give donors a tax I.D. number so they can write off their contributions.

Connecting inner city kids to bookstores is one of the greatest experiences I have had as an educator. I love this program.

Mike Cruz, a social studies teacher at River Rouge High School. Read more about his mission to hook kids on reading for pleasure on the Breaking the Cycle with Books page on Facebook.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

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