The poor have never had much, but in the days before television they always had stories: family legends, neighborhood myths and tall tales that sustained people through their straits.
Today, as more families relate to videos than to each other, poverty extends to language. In Baltimore, there are children who can recite every word to Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" but seldom have more than cursory conversations with their parents.
April Ragland tried to reverse that trend this year by reading 399 books to her preschool daughter.
For her effort, she was named "Mother of the Year" by New Song Community Learning Center at Gilmor and Presstman streets. And her precious audience -- daughter Donnisha Streets who turns 4 today -- is ahead of the learning curve that dooms so many city children to another generation of poverty. A year before kindergarten, she can read "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" and a few other favorites.
"Every time I'd read her a book, I'd mark it down," said Ms. Ragland, 33, a welfare recipient who doesn't remember anyone reading to her when she was growing up. "Donnisha would grab books and make me read to her. When I was done, she'd ask somebody else."
It did not occur to Ms. Ragland to read and discuss hundreds of books with her daughter. She has two older daughters and never read to them. The idea belongs to New Song director Susan Tibbels, an architect of private education in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The program costs $10 per child per month but demands parent involvement.
[The neighborhood has been the target of housing projects by the Rouse Co. and Habitat for Humanity, run in Sandtown by Laverne Cooper and Allan Tibbels, Susan's husband. The area is also one of the city's Empowerment Zones, although none of the $100 million federal grant has yet reached the community. In the 10 blocks around the New Song school, residents say, the number of abandoned buildings is almost the same as the number of books Ms. Ragland read to her daughter.]
With books from the nonprofit "First Book" group, New Song launched its program in October. Books were just part of the project, which stressed the importance of simple conversation about everyday things such as going to the market and finding acorns on the sidewalk.
Typical homework for parents included pretending to be a caterpillar and acting out the transformation into a butterfly for their child, all in pursuit of vibrant dialogue.
"We started with wordless picture books and told parents to make up their own stories," said Mrs. Tibbels, who was appalled by one family who said their 3-year-old would never sit still for a book because she had been raised on cartoons. "The black church comes out of the oral tradition. Storytelling is where it all began."
Parents had to fill out forms for each book completed, initial and return homework sheets, and attend monthly workshops. At the December workshop, local author Isabel Wilner read her book "B is for Bethlehem" to children while parents cut out nativity silhouettes. The artwork was glued to magnets and parents used cookie trays for storyboards.
For a workshop on rhythm and rhyme, Donnisha's father, Maurice Streets, taught the girl a poem he'd learned in grade school: "Houses high, houses low, houses everywhere I go. But from my window, I can see, between two houses, one green tree."
Said Mr. Streets, 36: "Coming up, I never had nobody to take the time with me like April does with Donnisha, nobody took five minutes to sit down and read me a book."
Chronically unemployed, Mr. Streets never reads for pleasure. Until the New Song project, Ms. Ragland would page through a magazine once in awhile, but nothing more. For winning the reading contest, she'll get a book of poetry by Langston Hughes.
"We want to create language rich homes," said Mrs. Tibbels.
Of the 24 original families, 18 stayed with the project through graduation. Some parents only read a single book to their child while half read a hundred or more. Of everyone who participated, Ms. Ragland struck Mrs. Tibbels as the most unlikely parent to read nearly 400 books. "She is the most nonverbal person I know."
Yesterday, she put the quiet woman on the spot, trying to gauge the worth of the project beyond the statistic of 399 stories.
"Do you talk to Donnisha more now than you did before?" she asked.
"Yes," Ms. Ragland said.
New Song Learning Center is seeking sponsors of tax-deductible scholarships for a five-week "Geography Summer Camp" at $36 a week. Students ages 5 to 10 will experience northeastern Asia and the United States through art, literature and music. Experts in these cultures are also welcome as volunteers. Call Susan Tibbels at 728-2091.