Reading to the Children of Camden

The city of Camden, New Jersey, is a tragedy, one I’d managed not to think about for the first 55 of my 58 years. Living in a comfortable suburb west of Philadelphia, I knew Camden only as a place to be avoided. When drivers cross the Ben Franklin Bridge into Camden they don’t pay a toll, but they pay $5 to reverse the trip. It’s an apt metaphor. Camden is a place you’re willing to pay to leave.

Once the home of Campbell’s Soups and RCA Victor, it employed more than 36,000 workers in its shipyards during World War II. Some of the nation’s largest warships were built by Camden laborers. It was a jumping-off point into the American middle class for generations of immigrant laborers – Italians, Irish, Germans, Eastern Europeans.

Those industries are gone. Now, above-board businesses in Camden are largely confined to tiny clothing stores, pawnbrokers, nail salons, and bodegas sellingchicharrones and lottery tickets.

Camden’s only current claim to fame is its misery – its open-air drug markets; its gangs; its rates of HIV infection; its legions of homeless people; its despair.

The city wasn’t on my radar. God, why would it be? It’s a place no one with other options would choose to go.

Then my boss sent me there.

I work for an educational publishing company whose headquarters are in a lovely town in Camden County, 16 miles and a universe away from the impoverished city. Three years ago, searching for a way to be a good neighbor, my employers began giving books to the students of the five Catholic elementary schools there.

Rather than just donate the books, my boss decided the books should be distributed by employees – people who would visit the schools regularly and read to the students. I am one of those guest readers. I visit two schools every other week. There I read aloud to each class and leave each child with a book of his or her own.

My journeys in and out of the city continue to be unsettling. Even after three years, I am chilled by the boarded-up houses, the crumbling buildings, the sagging porches. When I stop at the 7-Eleven for my morning coffee I nervously glance around before exiting my car, deciding if today’s panhandlers are dangerous or merely pathetic. The empty-eyed men and women standing idly on the street corners seem without hope. The young men gathered in vacant lots scare me.

But then I reach the school.

“Miss Beth! Miss Beth! I’ve missed you!” fourth-grader Sonia engulfs me in an embrace when she spots me in the hallway.

“Do you need help with the boxes?” asks Felix, a shy sixth grader. “I can carry them. I’m strong.”

“Hola, Miss Bethareeno! Como está?”hollers Alfonso, a seventh grader. Unlike many middle-schoolers, he still dares to be demonstrative. “What book are you bringing us today?”

I lug my boxes of books through the hallways, running a loving gauntlet of greetings and hugs. When I enter a classroom, the children erupt in cheers.

When I began visiting these schools, I was unprepared for every aspect of what I would experience.

I was unprepared for the depth of the children’s need.

The depth of their affection.

The depth of their poverty.

The depth of their courtesy.

The depth of the ways in which these children have had the American playing field yanked from beneath their feet by the accident of their birth.

“Do you have books in yourhouse?” One on of my first visits, a tiny girl waiting in the office asks me this question, her eyes wide with astonishment.

I stumble over my answer. “Oh. Yes. Yes, I do.” I only just manage not to say, “Of course.”

“We don’t,” she says, matter of factly. “Oh, wait. We have one.” (When I recount this anecdote to the principal, she nods. “That would be the Bible,” she says. “In Spanish.”)

Such conversations become a routine part of my visits.

“Where do you GET all these books?”

“What’s a bookstore?”

“Do you live in a library?”

When the kids learn that I write books myself, they are thunderstruck.

“How do you get all the words on the page to look alike?”

“How do you make the covers shiny?”

“Did you draw the pictures?”

“You must have a lot of paper in your house!”

No one is surprised that the little kids like to be read to. What is surprising is how much the older kids love it. One teacher realizes that for many of them, this is a new experience. Many of their parents do not read well. Many of them speak English poorly. There is no money for books. There is no history of reading for pleasure. The cozy ritual of the bedtime story is one of many parts of childhood that these kids have been denied.

This teacher does something about it. She hauls a large box of old teddy bears, toy rabbits, and stuffed giraffes into her classroom. Maybe the students will snicker. Maybe they will scoff at this invitation to return to childhood.

They don’t.

The image of a classroom full of brown and black eighth graders listening raptly to Star Girl, each unselfconsciously hugging a ratty stuffed animal, is one I wish I could broadcast into the living room of every armchair pundit who thinks he knows all there is to know about Camden. Each time the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a particularly gruesome crime in the city, letters to the editor pour in, dripping with vitriol about the “animals” who inhabit Camden and making recommendations for dealing with the city, most involving impermeable fencing and napalm.

I am reading to the second-graders. The story involves a little girl and her grandmother. I ask the children about their grandmothers. They raise their hands enthusiastically. Almost everyone has a story that they want to share.

I call on Alejandra. “Do you have a grandmother?” she asks.

“Oh, no,” I say, offhandedly. “My grandparents died a long time ago.”

Her face falls. “What happened to them?” she asks, her voice quavering.

“Nothing happened,” I hastily explain. "They just got old and died.”

The silence is deafening. I am confronted by twenty stricken faces. Then Serenity raises her hand, and speaks for them all.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” she says. Her seven-year-old classmates nod in unison.

They’ve gone to so many funerals. The formal words of consolation come readily to their lips. Until recently, a field of crosses stood in front of Camden’s City Hall, commemorating city residents murdered since 1995. When I say my grandparents died, the children of Camden assume the worst. One teacher tells me, “I dread Mondays. I’m always afraid a child is going to tell me that a family member was murdered over the weekend.”

I come in every other week. I love the children. They love me. I believe that the books make a difference. I hear wonderful things from the kids: that they have learned to love reading; that they now have a treasured bookshelf in a corner of their room; that they’ve kept every book I’ve given them over the course of three years. But I am a rich white lady who appears twice a month, a fairy godmother who vanishes back to her unimaginable world of big houses with grassy yards and swimming pools, leaving them in a city where to play outside is to risk death by an errant bullet.

I am embarrassed by my privilege.

At the year’s end, many of the students give me cards and letters. Some of the messages are as pedestrian as any forced thank-you note from a youngster. (“Thank you very much for your visits. It’s nice of you to bring us books.”)

Others make me laugh and cry, often both at once.

“Dear Ms. Beth, We love your Magic Tree House books we love you forever we don’t want you to leave we want you to stay forever we love you like Jesus, God, and Mary. Love, Tomas.”

“Dear Ms. Beth, You are a kind person. You give us books on your free time. You are always silly with us and I’m just gonna miss you so much. You are always in our prayers. Love, Lisa.”

“Dear Ms. Beth, Thank you for giving us free books. I love what you pick out. I love you wwwwaaaaaayyyyy more than mom. Eliana.”

It is the note from Briana, a thoughtful eighth grader, that brings me up short. Reflecting on the fact that she will be moving on to high school next year, she expresses appreciation for the books. She promises she will keep reading and says that she hopes to attend college. And then she writes, “Thank you for acknowledging us with your visits.”

Thank you for acknowledging us.

Acknowledge. “To accept or admit the existence or truth of.”

She is thanking me for admitting the existence of Tomas, Lisa, Serenity, Eliana, Alejandra, Alfonso, Felix, Sonia, and herself.

I am only a writer. A mom. A well-meaning liberal who goes home at night to her comfortable house in the suburbs. But I know one thing. The shame is not on these children for growing up in Camden. The shame is on the society that allows Briana and her sisters and brothers to live surrounded by such pain, such trauma, such awareness of their despised state that they are surprised and grateful when outsiders acknowledge their existence.

I am proud of my company’s outreach to the children of Camden. But the efforts of private citizens cannot make up for decades of government neglect, civic corruption, the evaporation of jobs, and the creeping, insidious belief that the poor have only themselves to blame for their entrapment.

These are America’s children, as much as the fortunate kids who attend the well-funded schools in my leafy green town.

We can do better for them.

We must do better for them.

To begin, we must acknowledge them.

An abbreviated version of this essay was published August 10, 2014, in the Opinion section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

About the Author

Beth Johnson

Since 1988 Beth Johnson has been an associate editor for Townsend Press, an educational publisher in New Jersey. She has published more than a dozen books of profiles about and for “people who have struggled with a variety of life obstacles,” in addition to books in “The King School Series” for reading instruction in Grades K – 2. She earned a B.A. in English and Communication from Goshen College in 1977 and an MS in literacy communication from Syracuse University in 1979. She lives in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, with her husband Bob Anderson.