OPED: How to honor Barbara Bush's legacy

Jay Ambrose
Tribune News Service

Most of us obviously did not attend the magnificent Texas funeral for Barbara Bush, but if you want to show your respect, if you want to do something acknowledging her contributions to this country, buy a child a book. Or, if you have children, either read to them or make sure they are reading. Call your local library or grade school and see if the people there need help with reading programs.

There's still lots, lots more you can do to abet the grand cause of literacy embraced by this recently deceased first lady, who was also known for her courage, wit and wisdom. While involved in other matters, such as boosting the spirits of a couple of men named George, she was particularly engrossed in using the printed word as a way of fighting for better lives for millions, adults as well as children.

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I myself crossed paths with her when I and others were trying in the late 1980s to encourage newspapers nationally to get more involved in this very serious issue. At that time, I was at a newspaper in El Paso, Texas, and was first motivated by hearing an educator speak about how reading was the single most important thing in the intellectual development of children, that this is the primary way in which they enlarge their vocabularies, learn grammar and spelling and learn to write.

Beyond that, others observe, it's how we master concepts and learn to think sequentially and logically while absorbing all sorts of subject matter.

What's needed, many said, is for children to be read to from early on, to be surrounded by books and, when they learn to read, to read a lot. Especially if a child comes from a disadvantaged home, there is a need for preschool and then excellent teachers and, quite likely, special tutors. Many never get this, and tens of millions of American adults read at nothing higher than a grade-school level. The consequences of low-level literacy are a little bit of everything bad, such as poverty, diminished opportunities and homelessness.

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Barbara Bush, described as having been a zealous reader herself, was drawn more into this issue by the fact that one of her sons, Neil, was dyslexic — a condition in which the written word is seen as a confused mess. He would likely not finish high school, she was told, but special efforts paid off, it turns out, and she began to think about how special efforts could pay off for others around the country. As a consequence, she was among those assisting in the passage of the 1991 National Literacy Act that focused on adults, helping teach vast numbers to read better.

Then she started the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. It has distributed hundreds of millions of books and helped 40 million kids. Its programs include one where teens tutor first-, second- and third-graders. The foundation works with preschool programs to bring disadvantaged kids up to average skills by the first grade. The foundation also helps parents earn high school diplomas so they can help their children more and do better in life themselves.

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A host of serious issues are tied up in all of this, even including high crime rates that have an association with parents allowing their children to watch lots and lots of TV while they stay away from books. Right now we have teachers striking over too little pay, and I am not saying pay does not matter, but what about too little reading proficiency in New York schools where teachers are the highest paid in the United States? It's not all their fault, clearly, but we need more remedies and the kind of activism in which people become tutors, for instance.

So tune into this issue and just maybe get a book co-authored by a dog with connections to the Bush foundation. It's called "Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush," and I hear it's a howl.

—Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at speaktojay@aol.com.