"If I go back to Sudan, they might take away my suit, they might take away my shoes. But they will not crack my head and take my knowledge."
Benjamin Ajak, in foreground and on a projection screen, speaking to students
Human skulls clustered under fruit trees. Mangled cars stinking of rotting flesh. Soldiers herding 2,000 people into a river to be drowned, or shot, or eaten by crocodiles. ¶ Benjamin Ajak and his cousins endured horror after horror as little boys caught up in civil war in Sudan. Finally, they arrived at a refugee camp, but even there they faced a brutal choice: Scrounge for money. And eat well. Or go to school. And get one meager meal a day. ¶ Ajak, despite all he'd been through — or maybe, because of it — chose school. ¶ Last week, at Lakewood High School, he explained.
"If I go back to Sudan, they might take away my suit, they might take away my shoes," Ajak, now 25 and living in San Diego, told an auditorium packed with 800 riveted students. "But they will not crack my head and take my knowledge."
The students gave him a standing ovation.
They didn't meet Ajak in person until Thursday, but they know him like an old friend, thanks to a schoolwide literacy project and They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, the award-winning 2005 book Ajak and his cousins wrote about their hellish odyssey.
Beginning in early February and ending last week, 100 teachers at Lakewood read every gripping sentence of the 311-page book out loud, to every student, in every class.
The hope: That Ajak's story would help more Lakewood students see the value of reading. Maybe even to begin to love reading. And maybe, just maybe, to lead them to make the same connections Ajak did between books and a better life.
"You have to start promoting literacy somewhere," said Kristy Myers, the literacy coach at Lakewood. "If we can get three or four to go to Barnes & Noble, we're successful."
The Lakewood program was modeled after one at Boca Ciega High School last fall, which in turn was inspired by similar projects at other schools in Florida and across the country. After spring break, two other Pinellas high schools — St. Petersburg High and Countryside — will give the one-book/one-school idea a shot.
"Our goal is not only to get kids to read more, but to think deeply about their reading," said Judy Terwilliger, the literacy coach at Boca Ciega.
Teachers at Boca Ciega picked A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, about a child in Sierra Leone. Lakewood chose They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky for similar reasons: Research suggests male readers, who as a whole struggle more than girls, are better engaged by true-life stories with male characters.
But can one book make that much difference?
Nobody at Lakewood pretends they've found a silver bullet. They've been dogged by the same desperate questions that haunt educators everywhere: How do schools instill a love for reading into kids whose parents didn't read to them, who don't see a concrete link between studying hard and a better future, whose complicated young lives are so riddled with distractions and drama?
They know, too, how far behind many of their students are: Last year, 49 percent of Lakewood's ninth- and 10th-graders were reading at grade level.
Myers, the literacy coach, says the school will survey students and teachers to get their impressions about the project. But so far, she likes what she sees.
Students and teachers grumbled before the project got started. Some students said: Bor-ing. Some teachers said: Got enough to do, thank you.
Kathy Van Dora, a 21-year English teacher, worried that reading aloud wouldn't be active enough to do any good. But listening to reading turned out to be intensively active.
"You could hear a pin drop," she said. "That speaks volumes."
Ajak's visit was anything but quiet. A hand-painted banner over the auditorium entrance said, "Welcome Ben!"
In his thick accent, Ajak told the students he learned to write by tracing letters in sand with his fingers. His class in the refugee camp used rocks for chairs, charcoal for pens.
He spoke soberly from the stage, furrowing his brow and rarely smiling. But students treated him like a hero, even after he told them things they've heard from other adults: Read. Be respectful. Don't take this opportunity for granted.
"Open your eyes, kids!" he said.
After Ajak's second presentation, dozens of students followed him out of the auditorium. Some wanted autographs. Some wanted to say thanks.
"My best friend was just looking for you."
"Can you take a photo with us?"
During class visits later, students barraged Ajak with questions. After one asked how they could help people in Sudan, he listed relief organizations but then circled back to his main message.
"If you really want to help," he said, "go to school and study hard."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.