The Baby Boomer Effect
For the past three years I’ve been working on a project to reopen our local public library and develop programs to get the members of our small community to make use of it. I started this project the same week I retired, so I’ve been busy; in truth, I’m not sure how I would have handled too much time on my hands. This experience got me to thinking about Baby Boomers and retirement and how much talent is out there just waiting for a new challenge.

As a teacher, I specialized in remedial reading and writing for high school students who were struggling to keep up. Most of my students had been labeled failures and/or behavior problems. Many were at risk of dropping out of school. My trick was to create a curriculum that was all about their lives and goals so that I could talk them into doing the hard work of increasing their ability to use the written word to their advantage. My class was an easy sell and we did our best, but many of those students graduated thinking of reading and writing as more of a chore than a pleasure.

A 2011 study conducted by a professor of sociology at CUNY-Hunter College suggests that 3rd grade is the “pivot point” — children who do not read at grade level by then are “four times more likely to drop out of high school.” They call it The Matthew Effect, referring to a verse from the Bible warning that those who have will get more, and those who do not have will lose even more. By high school, kids who have sailed through the K-8 curriculum have the confidence to tackle the most difficult classes in high school; those who continually struggle just to pass to the next grade keep losing ground.

I cannot fix the current state of the Union, but I can try to do something right here in my town. Last year we started a Homework Help program with one-on-one tutoring because our small library does not have room for more than a few kids to gather at one time. Right now 14 adults, most of them retired, meet once a week with students from the local K-8 who are falling behind. None of these volunteers are experienced teachers and many are baffled by the assignments, especially with the new math, but they dive right in and allow the students to witness a persistent thinker tackle a problem. One hour a week won’t get all of the homework done, but the kids and their tutors have created a bond that strengthens our little town. Maybe The Baby Boomer Effect can counter The Matthew Effect.

As Margaret Mead wisely observed, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We just need to show up and do what we can.