I have a question for those on both sides of the recent debate regarding whether Chicago students should attend their home schools or, in protest over inequitable state funding, boycott them and attend suburban schools: Have you armed those students with the essential tools derived from the legacy of their forefathers? Tools that have proven time and again to enable disenfranchised people to transcend discrimination, while at the same time continuing the pursuit of equity and justice? Whether boarding the bus for suburban Winnetka or walking to their neighborhood schools, have the students been equipped with a library card in one hand, a book in the other and a designated uninterrupted time to read each day? Simple tools, but one powerful outcome: literacy. These tools offer a great potential for success. During slavery, the use of these tools by slaves was illegal. Being accountable for ones learning while also pursuing justice is a lesson from these students’ ancestors.

But that has rarely been passed down through the generations with the urgency that it deserves. As a reading specialist who has taught in Chicago Public Schools for 36 years, I have observed that very few students are aware of this rich heritage to which they are heirs. But if we as a society will just take the time to teach the students this emancipating lesson of their lineage, they, just as their forefathers did, will transcend obstacles. As a result, they will become literate forces to be reckoned with. In turn, their literacy will enable them to become effective contributors in advancing the cause of justice. A case in point is Frederick Douglass. As a young slave, he was determined to learn to read, realizing the tremendous amount of power that comes from knowing how to read. After his escape, he became an outspoken abolitionist and an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln. In more recent history, world renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Benjamin Carson, declared, “I could have very well ended up in jail instead of Yale,” recalling his mother’s insistence that he read daily and limit television.

Now is the time to enlighten all of our students in Chicago and around the nation to this powerful legacy. Yes, send a message to the government about its obligation for equitable funding, but also send a message to our children about their obligation to transcend efforts to disenfranchise them. Both messages are essential. But the message to our children is a gift from the past which can lead them to success in spite of the government’s failure. As Frederick Douglass revealed to all who would hear: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Bonita Robinson is a reading specialist at Duke Ellington
Elementary School