The Joy of Literacy
by Nancy Frankel
I love that one day a year when I get to shoot my photos at the Reading Rally. I've done it every year since 1992. The kids are always rattled with excitement and joy waiting outside the school for the parade to start. They've clumped in groups under the elm trees in front of their school, while police officers clear the street and position their motorcycles to mark their place at the parade's front line.
The University of Texas cheerleaders and marching band get out of their busses to take their places behind those cops. Each bus is parked further down the street among the little houses that line Robert Martinez, Jr. Street.
Following behind the motorcycles and the UT contingent are droves of "exemplary" kids in convertibles and pickup trucks. Behind them, more kids organized by classroom proceed on foot, dressed in paper costumes that declare "Reading is Cool," or display names of favorite books and favorite characters. There are wide-eyed five-year-olds who have never heard a brass band before, let alone seen cops who weren't attending to some dark tragedy.
They march down the street turning onto Third and begin the circle that will take them between two federal housing projects and their own school and school yard. All this to celebrate reading, once a year, every spring, every Zavala kid.
The big noise and procession mark the most unusual approach to celebrating graduation from elementary school that I have ever witnessed. This approach has turned around what had been labeled one of the worst "performing" schools in this often impoverished state of Texas.
The kids end their parade at an outdoor stage behind the school. As their names are called out, they come to collect the book awards or receive special recognition for their success.
In the middle of all this I make pictures, madly make pictures. Some faces I know. Mostly I am surprised by the new faces that sprint from the crowd. Some kids are surprised at being photographed, others are oblivious to the camera, and still others welcome its attention.
"literature is no one's private ground, literature is common ground, let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our ownway for ourselves."
- virginia woolf
As I was leaving Dennis Pagan's exhibit, Reading Rally, I realized that I could have written a description of the show without ever having seen it. I say this because I know firsthand how children respond when they learn to read and how wonderful that response is. Pagan's work absolutely captures the emotions displayed by students when they begin to experience the joy of literacy. Pagan's work shows the sheer exuberance, heart-bursting pride and absolute enthrallment with the printed page.
Since 1992, Pagan has volunteered to photograph the children of Zavala Elementary in Austin as they participate in their annual reading celebration and parade. Pagan explains that he hopes The Reading Rally exhibit will encourage all children to discover the "cool" and "joy" and "power" of reading. In his artist's statement, Pagan enthusiastically describes his observations and participation in this annual event. (See sidebar)
In Desmond (1998) we see a child reading a book with great concentration. The boy's finger runs under the text; we all do this when the reading is challenging. We sense the effort and concentration the boy summons to understand the author's message. Other students are in the background involved in their own work. The children in the photograph are blurred; the printed page and the reader are the only parts in sharp focus.
Fagan seems to be reminding us that the only aspect of reading that remains constant is the author's words. The reader will grow, change and mature. The setting in which the work is read will always be different. Generation after generation ofyoung readers will delight in the work or muddle through it, but the words on the printed page will always remain the same.
As an adult whose professional focus is to help children learn to read, I cannot help but feel optimistic when viewing Dennis Pagan's photographs. This generous photographer not only captures the joy on a literate child's face but also placesenough emphasis on this goal to make it a recurring subject — to share with others the need to help children learn to read.For readers and future readers everywhere, Dennis Pagan has truly shared a great appreciation of the written word and of the importance of personal success.
Pagan succeeds in showing us the joy and pride young readers feel as they "trespass freely and fearlessly" into a good book. •
Nancy Frankel is a certified reading specialist who administers literacy programs for struggling readers in Cypress-Fairbanks I.S.D.