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Needles On The Sidewalk

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"We can't take them,'' one of the boys told me. "We don't have room.''

Another child said, "My mother told me books aren't allowed in the house.''

"I'm sorry,'' was all a third child said as she carefully put her book back onto the table.

I was stunned at first, still holding on to the naive view that no parent would refuse to let books into the home. When I realized what I was up against, I decided to try a different approach. If I could not get the books into the homes of the children, I would get the children into my learning center.

It was a slow process. I kept talking to the kids, inviting them in. At first, they only played in front of their building. Gradually they moved in front of the learning center. And finally, as the weather changed and winter approached, a few ventured inside. But they would run out the moment they heard any of their mothers calling to them.

One day, one of the boys saw me looking through a photograph-filled book about reptiles. He sat down and asked if he could see the book with me. Within a few days, the other children were looking through books and asking questions. Two weeks later, one of the children selected a book off the shelf by himself. The others crowded around and asked him about the illustrations.

I still could not get the children to take the books home with them, but there were other small signs of progress. For example, as winter ended and spring began, four of the boys began to come in daily for tutoring. For two weeks, they read and did math problems. Then, all the children from next door stopped coming in for a few weeks. But by the end of May, they were back painting, looking at pictures in the books, and studying the nature displays.

In early June, a group of the children from the dope house approached me. "We want you to go through the animal book with us,'' one of them said.

Like a proud father, I pulled the book from the shelf. As I opened it, one of the children spotted a pile of workbooks. "Can I do this?'' she asked.

"Sure,'' I said. I hesitated for a moment, thinking about what I should say and hoping this might be the breakthrough I'd been waiting for. "In fact,'' I added, "you can have it.''

The smile on her face made my entire year of trying worthwhile.

She labored in the workbook for more than an hour while I read the animal book to the other children. Finally, it was time to close. I put the animal book back on the shelf. As the children filed out, she stood by the desk hugging the workbook to her body. "I'm going to put it in your desk,'' she said. "I'll get it tomorrow.'' Then she ran out.

She never came back for the workbook.

Despite all my calls and complaints to the police and the city, nobody seemed very interested in shutting the dope house down until some of my students and I went to the newspapers. We brought a box filled with 500 needles that we had collected during an angry visit to the house. The newspapers ran a story. A local television station sent cameras. Finally, the city had the building barricaded; it was eventually torn down.

Of course, the addicts just set up shop again. But now they are two blocks away from my students, not next door. And some of the kids from the dope house still come into my learning center every day.

Michael H. Brownstein is an elementary school teacher and the director of the Reading And Math Program (RAMP), a nonprofit, privately funded learning center on Chicago's South Side.

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