Give a child a book for Christmas

By Raffique Shah
December 02, 2007

BooksAs the Armed Forces Veterans Association (AFVA) prepares for its annual Christmas party for selected children in Laventille (where its operations are based), my ex-soldier friend Selwyn Nurse asked: what toys do you think we should give them this year? “Books!” I responded, without hesitating. Books? He seemed somewhat puzzled by my response. I imagine the children, too, would be unpleasantly surprised when Santa (Brigadier Alfonso? WOII Gellizeau?) hands them books, not Nintendos or the latest tech-toys. Parents may even cuss Santa and storm out of the compound, probably pelting bottles and stones, if not spraying the “vets” with real bullets.

Having explained why I thought the AFVA should take the lead in trying to stimulate reading among children, Nurse bought the idea and is now looking for book donors. I should add that besides gifts, the children are treated to snacks and goodies, enjoy music, and generally have a good time. I have identified this one children’s Christmas party because I am associated with the AFVA. But there are hundreds of similar events hosted every year, and not only for Christmas, but increasingly for Eid, Diwali, graduations, and so on. At most of these, the hosts feel compelled to buy the children toys-usually cheap trinkets that are bought in bulk.

One of the main failings of our society, and we are not singular in this respect, is that increasingly, children do not read. In fact, I can say with authority that many teachers do not read-except textbooks they need to read for teaching purposes. Over the past few years, British writer J.K. Rowling has stimulated interest among teenage readers with her Harry Potter series. But technology and globalisation have combined to consign reading to a rapidly diminishing number of “old fogeys”. Today, it’s the ubiquitous LCD or plasma screen that controls mind, body and soul. These are also among reasons why we enter the 21st century with declining numbers of people who can read, write properly, or understand basic arithmetic.

Last week several consumer reports coming out of North America and Europe told of parents who will buy their pre-school children (meaning those under three years) expensive tech-toys like laptop computers, ipods, and real cell-phones. One mother who bought a toy phone for her one-year-old baby said the child threw it away! She wants a real phone, like the one mummy owns. Here in Trinidad, it will be little different, especially among the well-heeled. You can bet, too, that those who complain loudest about rising food prices, illiteracy among school children and high crime, will think nothing of spending heavily on gizmos for their “tiny treasures”.

I am not suggesting we take the fun out of Christmas, which I’ve long maintained is meant for children, what with its compelling tale of the Christ-child in a manger, and its many beautiful songs. Sure, give the young ones some fun stuff. But in or out of the festive season, people must realise that for this country to progress, we need to produce many more literate graduates. And the fundamentals of literacy have not changed since Euclid and Shakespeare walked the earth: the three “R’s”-reading, writing and arithmetic are an imperative.

Being a compulsive reader for the better part of my 61 years (except for some textbooks I laboured through when I attended college), I can say with authority that reading not only informs and educates, but more important, it stimulates the imagination. I am no scientist, but I’d rank imagination as our “sixth sense” that is probably more valuable that the other five put together. Conversely, tech-games, television and computers, when not properly used, destroy the wonderful world of imagination.

When I was a pre-teen reading Aesop Fables, Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” series and “Billy Bunter”, I was lost in a dream world of high adventure. Today’s parents need not turn to foreign authors for stimulating material, although reading, like music, is universal in appeal. Julie Morton has churned out several while my late friend, Ken Parmasad, produced an Indian classic in Salt and Roti. For more mature children, and this has little to do with age, there’s Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey, as, I am sure there are many other good “reads” from other Caribbean writers.

Many bookstores still stock the “classics” in condensed versions, which were what many of my friends and I used to introduce our children to the joy of reading. Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, Arabian Nights, and, of course, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, must be a thousand times more interesting than most television shows (except, perhaps, Sesame Street). Comic books provided an incentive for those children who were not “bright”, to learn to read.

As we seek to address today’s problems of illiteracy and crime, which are inextricably linked, we should start by re-kindling an interest in reading, in the logic of math, and healthy sports. These give us no guarantee against societal degeneration. But they might just extricate us from this descent into the hell-hole we are mired in. And they cost much less than the tech-junk that children will destroy before the festive season gives way to Carnival.

10 thoughts on “Give a child a book for Christmas”

  1. Ah, Raffique. You continue your downward slide.
    The people of Laventille appreciate books as gifts.I know. Here is the testimony of one witness. A child was identified by soldiers patrolling the Laventille Hills in 2005, who was twelve years old, and never been to school. They brought her to the Russell Latapy Secondary School,at that time led by Mrs. Monica Regisford-Douglin. She marshalled her teachesr and took the girl in. She began learning to read. When I heard ths story, in July of 2005(Earl Lovelace was at the same function at the school, and can attest to this part) I volunteered to teach a reading enrichment programme at that school th following July, 2006. The neediest children for reading enrichment were identified from schools in the area served by Russell Latapy School. We were supposed to serve forty, but on the first day fifty-one turned up. We took them all. For the next two days we continued to turn away children, because there were only four of us volunteers, one of whom was flying down for one week only.
    At the end of the two weeks,we had a function to which the parents were invited. A large number of them came. We gave away all the books and instructional material to the children, including pencil, pen crayons and drawing paper,and encouraged parents to read to them, and listen to the children reading.

    Four women none of whom was from Laventille, one of whom had never set foot in TnT before, worked with those children for two weeks without one unpleasant incident. I, the senior member of the team, both in age and experience, decided that I would collect phones every morning, and return them at the end of the day-12.30. It worked just fine. Two people from the world of work outside of school, could attest to this. Dr. David Bratt spoke to them about being a doctor, and good health practices, and Mr. Trevor Marshall, an engineer, spoke to them about becoming an engineer. (He began as a tailor, and worked his way up. Even at UWI, he sewed for other people.He said.)

    We sometimes presume that people living in economically depressed areas reject education. They do not. It is just that the burdens of life weight more heavily on them than on most of us. Towards the end of the program, when they felt they could tell us anything, Shawn spoke about fears of violence in his part of town. They were getting ready to rumble. I personally went to the Morvant Police Station and got a police officer to come on closing day to talk about staying safe for the rest of the holidays. The parents were there to hear this speech, as well as two members of the school board.
    No bottles were thrown, no stones, no guns, although one thirteen year old when asked about career choices said “gunwoman”. We hoped that we helped with other choices.

    Parents picked their children up, as agreed, and in one noteworthy case, a neighbour got a very neglected child to come to the programme, by arranging personal transportation with a woman taxi-driver. She also came herself to report a suspected case of child neglect,and the school counsellor took her to the police to give a statement.

    Laventille may be a breeding ground of crime because of neglect,poverty and exploitation , but I am willing to bet that not a parent in Laventille would become violent at the gift of a book.
    You have mauvais langued a people of a community about which you hear. Go volunteer at Russel Latapy to teach a writing class one day a week,for an hour and a half or so, I challenge you, and you would see a different Laventille.

    Prior to my donating books to the school due to a pesonal friendship, Laventille to me was the Lady Young Road on the way to Port-of_Sapin. I had never had reason to stop in.Some of this material was covered before in a piece I wrote in august-September of 2006.

  2. Ms.L.Edwards:

    You are to be commended for your services to the people of Laventille, we are some what to also commend Mr. Shah. You are an unsung hero, without Mr. Shah’s article I would not know of your service to our wonderfull land… I know of many of my friends who are doing similar service on the island, I have also been trying to involve my self in giving, I need your help in finding the opportunity to do so.

  3. Even the most well meaning among us fall into this trap of applying stereotypical assumptions in their judgement of particular communities. The cheapest source of information in these communities have always been reading material, and contrary to “popular” sentiment, as Linda correctly asserts, poor people are poignantly conscious and aware that education is an important key to the future prospects of their kids.

    Raffique seem to have become caught up in a well known syndrome of rediscoverinbg the wheel. While his heart might be in the right place, his “discovery” of a solution that was implemented long ago does a dis-service to those have been dealing with the issue eons before the light bulb went off over his head.

  4. Thank you both for the commendations. Charity is not charity that vaunteth itself, but in this case I had to go into details to undo the effects of the Mauvais Langue. His piece ws also in the Express. I wonder how may read it and said well, see, dey go pelt you wid a book if you give them one, thus transferring an impression into a belief. Ah, the power of the written word!
    Now about volunteering.
    Every school in Trinidad and Tobago needs volunteers. If you are a good reader, go read to a child, one at a time, or in small groups, as a partner with a teacher. If you have another skill, that you can share with a group, you can volunteer. Talk to the principal of a school in your neighbourhood.
    Dr. Bratt is involved in some volunteer work in the Maraval area. His e-mail is attached to his Guardian article. I will let him know I told you this.
    Volunteers MUST register with the school, and should be willing to have a background check. Retired teachers make wonderful volunteers because their credentials have already been validated.

    It is imperative that volunteers be in good helth, according to a pediatrician friend of mine, not Dr. B. “Children are full of germs”, so if your health is fragile, you may want to do something else. Hospital wards need volunteers to read to the children. Every regional hospital has children who are out of school because of illness. If you work with only one, you can be the laise between the child and his/her school.An ancillary school system can be set up in the hospitals for very sick children who miss years of school. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has this, as well as other leading hospitals abroad.

    The school from which you graduated would, most likely, welcome you with open arms. I write stories for children, and read one to some kids on July 5th that really warmed my heart with their responses.

    There is a lot to be done to help build a better Trinidad and Tobago. What I do as a volunteer is totally devoid of any political motive. I love all children, and delight in them reading to me, as well as my reading to them.

    Good luck in your search. You would find so much spiritual joy from sharing, that you would marvel at the fact that it took you so long to get involved. One thing though, children expect grown ups to keep their promises. If you say you will be there for ten o’clock, please be there. Having your own transport is a must, but last July, my friends and I worked in the east, and took maxi-taxis to and from our project. Today is a good day to start.

  5. One more point on volunteering, my friend. It is important that you sit at the level of the child you are helping. If reading to them,do not stand up and walk around, but sit, and let them gather around you. There is someting about this that is almost instinctive. It speaks of nurturing. Check out the story reading project at the National Library in POS if you can. Its on Wednesdays. If you get to see the children’s reading room, notice how much of a child’s place that is. If they ask questions about the material, or even a tangential question, answer it honestly. Children can hear things we do not know we are saying. If there is a specific reason why you cannot answer the question,tell them you can’t answer that. Above all, treat them with love. If their noses are running, give them a tissue. Little things mean a lot.

    Above all, do not do this if your purpose is expose and not as
    assistance. The God of Children will be displeased at you deception.
    Each day, I ask myself what can I do to help my country. This is today’s portion. Share it with anyone you know who teaches, wants to teach,or wants to volunteer.

  6. Nothing I read in what Mr Shah wrote led me to believe he was targeting the children and/or people of Laventille as being ignorant, non-readers. As Selwyn Cudjoe correctly points out, he raised the very important issue of the low level of reading by many, if not most, Trinidadians. He alluded to teachers who do not read (fact), to parents who pamper their chidren with everything but books. So what is Linda Edwards’ problem with Mr. Shah? Does she believe because he is Indo he has no right to make suggestions to, or to intervene in the affairs of Laventille? How petty and racist. Mr Shah, from all I’ve read that he has written, is the quintessential Trinidadian and Caribbean Man. If he is so recognised by people across the region, and Ms Edwards is not, then tough luck. Mr Shah is not one of the most widely read columnist in the Caribbean by vaps. Your race-slip is showing, Linda!


  7. To Ralph Mohammed

    “Parents may even cuss Santa and storm out of the compound, probably pelting bottles and stones, if not spraying the “Vets” with real bullets”. Raffique Shah.

    Now, did I make this up?

  8. Give it up Linda. You cannot reason with the unreasonable. The perspective of some people immediately become warped when an African dares to question the wisdom of anyone they feel is a member of the superior group they are convinced they are part of. They do not read what is there, they automatically transistion to the SOP. And that is, it is racist for an African to challenge the wisdom of an Indian.

    Your critique of Raffique’s piece, someone who I admire immensely, was coherent, lucid, and subject matter consistent. Where racism emerges is in the reaction of Ralph Mohammed. It is not merely what is said that triggers their racist animus. It is who says it. That is the sad reality of our world unfortunately.

  9. I agree with you, Ruel, I only hope that Mr. Mohammed can read, and re-reads Raffique’s piece thoroughly, and then re-reads my comment. The children need books for Christmas, and adults with computers need to read, and comprehend. How many times have I said on this forum, that I agree with Raffique’s point of view? I disagree twice, point it out logically, and I become a racist. I have a folder on my pc called “Assh—- in General” to which I consign idiot pieces. Unfortunately, my computer skills do not allow me to transfer this entire string to that folder. I would have liked to use it in a workshop to demonstrate idiocy by allegedly literate people, who are blinded by ethnic insularity.

    Some people think that their constant negative natterings will cause thinking people to give up. Mistake. We have a country to improve here.

  10. Ralph, why do all issues relevant to national interests and the well-being of Trinidadians have to translate into race? Whay can’t we just view ourselves as people trying to better ourselves and our nation? I can’t understand whay we just can’t respect each others opinions and wish each other the best. Why the animosity?? Is that what you want for your kids and grands?

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