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Harrington students read all about it

Brendan Crighton reads “Make Way for Ducklings” to third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders at the Harrington School, as part of the “Harrington Reads” program. (STEVE KRAUSE)

LYNN — Fifteen years ago, the “Harrington Reads” program got off the ground.

The program is an effort to teach elementary school students the value of reading. Each year since 2003, volunteers from all walks of life in the city come to Harrington, at the behest of program director Carole Shutzer, to read a children’s book to Harrington students, and then to hear a prominent person — this year it was state Sen. Brendan Crighton, who regaled the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Harrington with “Make Way for Ducklings,” by Robert McCloskey.

The book, about a couple of mallards who decide to raise their family of ducklings in a lagoon on the Boston Public Garden, has become such a classic that bronze statues representing the ducks can be found on the northwest end of the park. They are a popular tourist attraction.

“I am always amazed at the number of volunteers who come every year,” said Shutzer. “Not just the famous ones, but the everyday volunteers who care about the students and spend some of their free time caring and reading to the students.

“It truly is remarkable,” said Shutzer.

Along with various teachers and administrators, outgoing superintendent Dr. Catherine Latham  and her replacement, Dr. Patrick Tutwiler, were on hand to read. Members of the Lynn Fire Department and Lynn Police Department — including chief Michael Mageary — also read to the students.

As did I.

It’s a very rewarding thing, reading to a group of kids who hang on your every word as if it came down from Mt. Sinai. But it’s also a bit intimidating. You are theirs for the next half hour to 45 minutes, and when you see that many eyes staring back at you as soon as you tell them your name, it can be very, very humbling.

I read two books to the children. The first was ‘Dancing in the Wings,” by Debbie Allen who, you may remember, was one of the stars in both the movie and the TV version of “Fame.” The book is about a girl, very tall for her age, who has to fend off insults from her peers and her own older brother and somehow maintain some semblance of self-confidence.

The girl, nicknamed “Sassy” because she gives as good as she gets, loves to dance, but she’s so tall and awkward that she seems to be behind her peers.

That is until some big-shot Russian dance impresario comes to town looking for kids to recruit for a national workshop. He sees something in Sassy that no one else has seen and invites her to his workshop in Washington. She succeeds down there and is featured in the end-of-workshop recital.

These stories all have morals, and most of them are fairly evident. For example, one student in the class felt that the entire story of Sassy and her dance recital was “inspirational.” But there are other morals too, such as rising above the usual taunts of siblings, and the cruelty of your peers. These messages cannot be reinforced enough to kids, many of whom go through their childhoods with self-image problems.

The second book was “A Special Place,” about an African-American girl who decides she wants to spread her wings a little and go off and play in the city without the grandmother who is raising her.

But everywhere she goes, she runs into Jim Crow last. She has to sit in the back of the bus, which is beyond crowded, while seats for white people are empty. She can’t sit on a park bench and watch her favorite fountain. She tries to befriend a little white boy whose sister quickly redresses him for associating with an African-American.

The whole episode gets her down, until she meets a kind old woman in a churchyard, is comforted and then finally goes to her “special place” — a place where everyone is welcome: the library.

That brought us full-circle of course. This was a day to encourage children to read. And the book with the most powerful message of them all brought us to the reality that reading knows no prejudice. It provides the same portal to places unknown, and it doesn’t really matter who’s writing, or who’s reading.

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