By Nick Chiles
What a beautiful sight it was to behold. Children from 85 schools here in Georgia, all giddy from excitement and nerves, crammed into a basketball gymnasium. No, they weren't there for some basketball playoff game. It wasn't even a sporting event. They were all there because they shared one thing: they all loved to read. It was the annual Reading Rally academic competition in Gwinnett County, Georgia, where teams from elementary, middle and high schools in the area square off to see who can answer the most questions about a stack of books that all the competitors have been assigned to read.
For months, our daughter Mari would wake up early on Friday mornings so that we could drive her over to her elementary school where she would practice with the rest of her reading team. At Mari's school, the squad is called The Pageturners. While Mari is a stud on the soccer field, she's also a voracious reader who was looking forward to bringing her competitive instincts to the academic arena. She's one of those kids who gets so absorbed by a book that she sometimes tries to keep reading while she's walking down the stairs. We have to tell her to put the book down for just a second so she won't break her neck. But Denene and I are both thrilled by her love of reading, because we were the same way when we were in fifth grade and we know how much it can propel you to a sterling academic career. We have no doubt that our love of reading was instrumental in us becoming writers.
Mari and I couldn't believe how many kids and parents were descending on the local high school where the competition was held. The traffic to get into the school was backed up down the road for at least a half mile. And when we walked into the building, I was amazed at what I saw: Hundreds of kids of every size and color imaginable. There were black kids and Hispanic kids and white kids and Asian kids. All wearing their special competition t-shirts bearing their school's name and all nervous and animated, ready to do some serious battle. I heard a teacher from one of the schools walking behind me eagerly tell his students that the scene was amazing because it's like the Super Bowl of reading! Indeed, it was the kind of sight that brings hope for the future. If there are this many eager young reading beavers out there, perhaps the next generation might be able to save us from our fool selves.
Once the teams broke up and went into the classrooms to compete, with us parents trailing behind, just as nervous as the kids, it was fascinating to watch them delve into the details of these great books they had been reading. Out of nearly 60 elementary schools, Mari's team finished somewhere in the middle of the pack. But even though they didn't walk away with a trophy or a medal, I knew that each of the kids in that gym were winners because there is nothing as valuable to a budding academic career as a love of reading. These kids will undoubtedly soar.