Saturday, December 4, 2010

The City of Big Readers

I didn't know what to expect when I accepted an invitation to participate in a holiday gathering of the Mayor Daley High School Book Club. Karen Burke, the club coordinator, explained that the book club had been meeting with the mayor for thirteen years, and that this would be the last gathering. I've long been grateful to Mayor Daley for his extraordinary support of reading and public libraries, and I'd been told that he was a big reader, but I was unprepared for his warmth, candor, and caring in conversation with students from Orr Academy High School on Chicago's West Side. The students were also a revelation. So smart, so funny, so sweet in the best sense of the word. Gorgeous, it must be said, and giving. So, too, their radiant and, clearly, loved teacher and school librarian. It was a room full of passion for learning, for sharing, for stories, and for books (students named as their favorites Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut). And for pizza.

Mayor Daley spoke frankly about how tough life is, how vulnerable we all are, how crucial education is, how essential books are to navigating the world. He sat forward and talked intently about how he struggled in school, how mortifying it was to fail the bar exam twice, with his father as mayor and his heart set on a state's attorney job. Mayor Daley told us about how his grandfather was killed by a drunk driver, a neighbor, just days before Christmas, and how difficult the holiday was forever after for his mother. He spoke with love and sorrow about his son who died before he turned three, and of how much life the young boy possessed. He spoke with pride and relief of his son who has just returned from serving in Afghanistan, and of how we need to bring all the troops home now.

The mayor showed us his office, or rather, his three offices, rooms in descending levels of formality. Rooms filled with the auras of conversations, arguments, thoughts, and emotions, as well as gifts, art, memorabilia, and, most of all, family photographs. And photographs of policemen killed in the line of duty, of teens shot down on the street for no good reason. Every day Mayor Daley studies photographs of these fallen Chicagoans with profound sorrow and concern, renewing his vow to do his best to do right by everyone who calls Chicago home.

But this was a day for celebration. The mayor, smiling and joking, yet always commanding, gamely posed for photographs with each of the Orr students, young women and young men full of desire for meaning and accomplishment, full of creativity and hope. This is what it is to be a mayor of a big complicated city. To feel grief and responsibility, and to mentor the young and promising, and feel joy in their beaming presence.

I cannot thank Karen, the mayor, his staff, and all the Orr Academy students and their teacher and librarian enough for an inspiring and uplifting meeting of the mind and spirit. To talk about books and how books enrich and guide us, to talk about what it means to live life fully and positively, to express gratitude and laugh together, I couldn't have received a greater gift.