THE OBLIGATORY index cards come out the first class of each semester. In addition to names and addresses, I ask my students two questions: What is your occupational goal? What books have you read in the last six months?
The results of this questioning are, shall we say, disheartening. If I am to take them at their word, few of these men and women are at a loss when it comes to setting lofty career goals. And practically none see a correlation between their ambitions to be teacher, lawyer, doctor and the necessity to read and write well.
My favorite response last semester was from a person pursuing a career in advertising, who won points for honesty.
He wrote, "Books I've read in the last six months? I haven't read a book in the last six years."
When I urge my students to read the newspaper, I am told that CNN does it better and painlessly. When I suggest that writing well comes from using language, that to be literate we need to read and write every day, they are quite sure they will achieve success without resorting to either one.
I speak to them from the heart about books that have changed my life, and I see it in their distracted eyes or their bored expressions -- my prehensile tail is showing.
Perhaps it is. Even national news magazines have gone to something they euphemistically term "letters received via telephone mail."
Who's kidding whom? One phone call and the reader can get it off her chest without the trouble of choosing her words carefully, putting them to paper and running an envelope to the mailbox.
My students are the products of Baltimore's public and private schools. Many of them are bright and engaging and ready to take on the world -- as long as they are not asked to read or write in it. After all, they tell me, computers have spell checkers; cable has it all; no one expects a fax to be well written, just expedient. So what's the big deal?
The big deal is that not everything that matters in this world is covered on Geraldo.
It's that exquisite beauty lies in books.
It's that one afternoon a student informed me that she was fairly certain (but not positive) Truman Capote had been president of the United States.
When that happened, I shouldn't have pressed my outmoded platform.
But, like some Harold Stassen of the writing world, I went on and on, until I realized my class was looking at me as though I were a William Safire groupie gone berserk.
I'm not. I'm simply thinking of what happened to a colleague not so long ago. It was too funny to be sad, too sad to be funny. He asked his class to name which of these men had lived in the 20th century: Kublai Khan, Mohandas Gandhi or Mohammed. A young man who will probably never read this raised his hand and answered smugly.
"You can't fool us," he said.
"We know Gandhi was a movie."
Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.