Saturday, September 19, 2015

Pulling the Plug

A Detroit woman, who suddenly found herself a single mom needing to support two sons, went to work as a domestic servant in the homes of the city's more fortunate families. When her boys headed home to watch TV after school every day—while she worked several jobs to make ends meet—she noticed one thing about her clients: that "wealthy people read a lot of books."

There was a corollary to her discovery: those people didn't spend a lot of time watching television.

That was enough to clinch it for this observant mother. Her informal after-school program made a radical change. No more television. Afternoons were now spent at the library. And she gave her sons a weekly assignment to read two books. Worse, they even had to write a book report on each one.

That might have been the scenario in a lot of homes over the decades, especially with the advent of the working mom trying to manage a household in absentia—whether single or married. But there is a compelling conclusion to this act of matronly determination.

Of course, I wouldn't have stumbled upon this story if it hadn't been for the gift of reading. I don't personally know the man telling this story—author, publisher and leadership coach Michael Hyatt, who shared it in his blog yesterday—nor do I know the man whose mother this is. But I do know that the subject of this vignette is also, himself, now a best-selling author and respected professional.

And through his story, I'm witness to the phenomenal change that can be bestowed upon a life through the power of reading. As you can imagine, back when this successful man was that young schoolboy, his was not a story of privilege, but of struggle. The transformation of being transported through books to worlds he might not otherwise have known might have been gradual, but the result was palpable.

Reading his story reminded me that we, too, have stories—not only stories of our own life experiences, but those belonging to our family's history. And just as the books this man read made a difference in his life, our stories—if shared—may turn out to bring a change in the lives of others.

Oh, I'm not talking about those dry recitations of genealogies—though those have a place in well-documented research. It's what took place in "the dash"—that individualized space in between the two numbers inscribed on our ancestors' headstones—that can provide the inspiration. When we include stories like those, our family histories not only come alive, their lessons can benefit others.

Just as both Michael Hyatt and Dr. Ben Carson have reason to champion the residuals of reading—expanding personal horizons, instilling a sense of an internal locus of control, and focusing on an uplifted sense of self-image—we as family historians can preserve the personal experiences and lessons of our ancestors and pass down the stories which also provide such benefits of reading. Our stories can reach a broader audience with an enlarged purpose behind our sharing.

You know how enthusiastic I am about encouraging people to share their families' stories. As much as I can, I'm putting that message into practice, too. But whether yet another underdog-becomes-celebrity is a story to your liking—or even one you find in your heritage—you have to acknowledge there is something nearly awe inspiring about the changes reading can bring about in a person's life.

I'm sure no one knew it more than that single mother in Detroit—the one who pulled the plug on life-as-usual for her latch-key children. Not only did she realize the power of those weekly reading assignments for her sons, but she must have felt that conclusion acutely in her own life. You see, though her boys may not have realized it at the time, when she returned those weekly book reports back to them—each one marked like a teacher wielding a red pencil might have done—she had no idea what had been written on those pages. She couldn't read them. She, herself, was illiterate. But somehow, her decision imprinted a priceless message in the heart of the next generation. And left the rest of us—who don't even know her—with an inspiring example.  


  1. Some Mothers are better than others! I love books and reading, I would read anything...the Bible and an old Veterinary Manual were the only things to read in our home. My Dad kept a stash of Soldier of Fortune magazines under the seat of the car...I read them if he left us alone in the car too long. I craved books, when in school I had books and read them all...but the summers were horrid until I earned enough money to buy some books in the dime store. My Mother considered reading a waste of time and she still does. She has not read a book...well except for the Bible.
    We used to take our girls to the library once a week, and I read to them from birth...possibly before:)

    1. I can't imagine a home without books--or the people who love them. I guess it's fortunate I had a mother who loved books. We had them everywhere. But as you said, not everyone sees it that way. When there's a squeeze on time--too much work to get done--I can see why someone would consider reading a waste of time.

      You and I are definitely on the same wavelength here, Far Side. Wish we could just get together for coffee some time!

  2. My own Mom would be shouting "AMEN!!!"

    She always thought and said "Books are way better than TV!"


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