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Barbershops, books and boogers 

How an expat Hall High graduate is creating an early literacy movement back home.

click to enlarge FROM HALL HIGH TO HARLEM, AND BACK: Little Rock native Alvin Irby pioneered an early literacy program in barbershops all over New York City. - MICHAEL INSCOE
  • Michael Inscoe
  • FROM HALL HIGH TO HARLEM, AND BACK: Little Rock native Alvin Irby pioneered an early literacy program in barbershops all over New York City.

Alvin Irby's big idea started with a haircut. As he sat in a barbershop across from P.S. 069 in the Bronx, N.Y., where he taught first grade from 2008 to 2010, one of his students walked in. "He sat down, and he was just sitting there," Irby said. Irby might not have even thought much about it, except that the student in question was his own, and one he knew would have been well served to spend that idle time with his head in a book. He remembers wishing he had a children's book to give him. And then it hit him. What if there was a bookshelf in the barbershop?

That epiphany turned into a plan: Barbershop Books. Using funds and resources from organizations like The Neubauer Family Foundation, Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the Citizens Committee for New York City and The Chasdrew Fund, Irby and his team launched the program at Denny Moe's Superstar Barber Shop in Manhattan, then Big Russ Barber Shop down the street, then Jesse's Barber Shop in the Bronx. Now there are more than a dozen barbershops with books in New York as well as others in Florida, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and Texas. The formula is simple: identify barbershops with the room, inclination and clientele to support a child-friendly reading space, and put in bookshelves. Barbershop Books has garnered praise from the likes of TV series "Reading Rainbow" and actors and rappers Ice Cube and Killer Mike.

Irby, a 2003 graduate of Little Rock Hall High School, began to get attention in local news stories earlier this year, when the National Book Foundation awarded him its Innovations in Reading Prize of $10,000. With help from former Grinnell College classmate state Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock), Irby plans to direct those funds toward implementing the program in a growing number of locations — including 10 barbershops in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

One of them, Salon 11.13, sits at 3925 John Barrow Road, south of Interstate 630. Parkview Arts & Science Magnet High School and the Sidney S. McMath Library are on that stretch of roadway, but otherwise, it's dotted with a steadily alternating pattern of liquor stores and churches. The sign outside the salon is sleek, embossed with the slogan "Where YOUR hair is OUR business." There's an old-fashioned barbershop pole alongside those words, the kind with the candy cane stripes and the silver top. It's the lone symbol of barbershops past; all else is new and spotless, from the crisp landscaping to the mixed stone and brick exterior of the building. Inside, owner Lawrence Anderson — whose November birthday gives the shop its name — stood with clippers in hand, making his way up the back of client David Mobley's scalp, starting from the neck and working upward.

"I've been cutting Dave's hair about 10, 12 years," Anderson recalled. Somewhere in Anderson's memory bank, there's a list of clients and their tenures. He remembers how long they've been sitting in his chairs, and which ones have followed him from shop to shop. When you find a barber you trust, Mobley said, you stick with the routine.

"I do this every Thursday at 12. I used to do it twice a week —"

"Twice a month," Anderson corrected him.

"Twice a month," Mobley repeated. "And," gesturing to Anderson, "he would be like, 'You can't be going anywhere and not having your hair cut every week.' "

Anderson cuts in. "My motto is: You should never look like you just got a hair cut. You should never look like you need a hair cut. You should just always have a hair cut. If you look like you just had a hair cut, that means you waited too long before you got it."

Anderson, who's lived in Central Arkansas his whole life, spends much of his time outside the barbershop coaching sixth-grade basketball and fifth- and sixth-grade football at Episcopal Collegiate School.

Anderson gestured to a young man in the anteroom. "Just to mess with him, I'm gonna tell you that the kid sitting up there in front is one of the kids I used to try to beat," Anderson said. He described a reconnaissance mission he made to suss out the future opponent's tactics. The "kid" was Donavan Smith, 17. He's a student at Little Rock Christian Academy. He's large and athletic, and he'd been silent until now, affirming Anderson's version of the tale to me at intervals with one soft-spoken "yes, ma'am" after another.

Anderson's spying on Smith in middle school, the story goes, was intercepted by Smith's mother and grandmother who, Anderson said with a laugh, "tried to attack me 'cause I was scoutin' their team. They told me, 'You're not playing, so go ahead and get out.' That's how I got him as a client." Anderson came out unscathed, with another head of hair to trim.

***

Irby's resume boasts two master's degrees and a litany of titles like "Education Director, Boys Club of New York." He's had years of experience teaching in public, private and charter schools. His work encouraging people to read books, though, predates those credentials. When he ran for Student Council president of Hall High in his senior year, his platform was "It Takes 2," a reading program he designed after becoming disillusioned with the curriculum in his 10th-grade English class.

"After a semester," he said, "the only thing I'd learned was that my teacher thought O.J. was innocent." He was coasting, with a near-perfect grade in the class, but he was bored out of his mind. After that semester, Hall allowed him to transfer to a pre-AP class where he got his first taste of racial inequities in the public school system. "I just remember walking into the class," he said, "and the first question that popped into my mind was, 'Where did all these white people come from?' In my regular class, it was all black and Latino students."

He devoured "The Great Gatsby" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and, fueled by a growing disenchantment with the disparity in reading level expectations, conducted a survey of 200 of his classmates to gauge reading habits across the school. He met with the community-relations manager for the Little Rock Barnes & Noble, who offered him $810 in the form of in-store gift cards for his peers to use toward extra-curricular reading. One day, he recalled, he was waiting in line to buy candy after school when his principal appeared beside him and said, "You know, Alvin, you're gonna be a better principal than I ever was." He responded with a "Never."

"But you know, I went off to college," Irby said, "and I took one education course and I couldn't sleep at night. My brain wouldn't turn off. I'd think about all the things I would do if I had a classroom. And that's when I decided to stop running from what I think has been my calling all along, which is to help inspire people and children to fall in love with learning."

click to enlarge IDENTIFYING AS READERS: Cedric Riley stands outside Big Russ on Frederick Douglass Blvd., one of over a dozen shops in New York City to implement the program. - MICHAEL INSCOE
  • Michael Inscoe
  • IDENTIFYING AS READERS: Cedric Riley stands outside Big Russ on Frederick Douglass Blvd., one of over a dozen shops in New York City to implement the program.

***

Even before the bookshelves have been installed at Salon 11.13, people in the community have already begun dropping off books of their own choosing; Anderson has short, tidy stacks of titles — among them, Margaret Musgrove's "Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions" and Anna Kosof's biography of Jesse Jackson. As well intentioned as those donations are, Irby and Blake aren't likely to use those titles in this particular program. In fact, the list of approved titles for Barbershop Books is squarely focused on the program's targeted audience, kids ages 4 to 8: Dav Pilkey's "The Adventures of Captain Underpants," Ezra Jack Keats' "The Snowy Day," Sonia Sanders' "LEGO City: Calling All Cars!"

To better understand why Irby's vision doesn't call for reading spaces brimming with copies of the "March" trilogy or illustrated histories of, say, Frederick Douglass or Shirley Chisholm, it's helpful to note the subject matter of the book Irby authored himself: boogers. His debut, "Gross Greg," is a rhyming picture book about a boy who loves to eat his boogers, published last September with pop-off-the-page illustrations by Kelvin Ntukula. (Would that boogers glittered like green "Ghostbusters" slime in the real world!) On the cover, a boy in sun-and-moon pajamas holds his left index finger up, perfectly poised to transfer the gleaming green blob from his fingertip to his open mouth. Behind him, his sister — also in pajamas — points at him, horrified. The first few lines of "Gross Greg" read like this:

"Bam! Bam! Bam! Greg hears three loud knocks on his bedroom door.

Now Greg knows he can't sleep anymore.

'Out of bed!' says his mom with a shout.

We'll be late for school. There's no time to pout.'

'Ahhhhhhhhh.' With a loud yawn, he's up on his feet.

Greg's eyes are still sleepy, but he wants something to eat."

Reviews posted on Irby's website range from "My son can't put it down, and he's 23" to one from a New York City first-grade student identified as Nathaly, who said, "I enjoyed your story Gross Greg because it was very silly. Can you make more books like Gross Greg eats worms and Gross Greg eats his homework? You are ready to make more books," she declared. And, gratuitously outing her own "Greg," she added, "My brother eats his boogers."

Far too often, Irby said, "the children's books that feature black children often deal with these very serious topics — civil rights, for example. 'Gross Greg' is kind of my effort to combat that kind of oppression narrative that's so often the case when it comes to children's books that have black main characters. ... To me, creating 'Gross Greg' was about creating a character who depicts just being a kid, and this is something that really challenges a lot of adults and educators. ... There are books that will get kids excited about reading, but they may not be the books that you're currently using or that you might even consider using." What he's found from his travels to conferences and symposiums on early literacy around the country, he said, "is that a lot of adults are more concerned about what they like than what will inspire kids to fall in love with reading."

click to enlarge 'CHILD-FRIENDLY READING SPACES': Big Russ Barbershop displays titles curated by Irby and his team, chosen for their ability to "help children fall in love with learning." - MICHAEL INSCOE
  • Michael Inscoe
  • 'CHILD-FRIENDLY READING SPACES': Big Russ Barbershop displays titles curated by Irby and his team, chosen for their ability to "help children fall in love with learning."

Irby could just as well add science to that, too. "Gross Greg" has a set of online games adjacent to the story, teaching kids how to read graphs ("How many kids think mustard-covered pancakes is the grossest thing?"), how to think about fractions ("Color in 1/4 boogers!") and how to tell time ("Show the time on the clock when Greg ate his boogers!")

It should be said that Irby probably thinks a lot about igniting a spark with audiences, and not just in the context of the classroom. He moonlights as a stand-up comic. On his "other" resume, the title of "comedian" is sandwiched between "educator" and "entrepreneur." Irby was a finalist in the 2015 StandUp NBC Competition, and spent time the following year giving performances at colleges in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Most recently, he's recruited some of his comedy peers to perform for "Fresh Fade Comedy," a fundraiser for Barbershop Books.

"Gross Greg," for its author, is about giving kids room to be goofy. It's about "affirming the humanity of children," he said. "I know that might sound weird to think of a book about boogers affirming somebody's humanity. When you think about the media, though, and the way black boys are often depicted in public spaces, they often are not allowed to be children. They have the whole world on their shoulders," he said, "because everybody is looking at them expecting them to do this or do that. ... They're being suspended and expelled from preschools at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts. They're being shot down in the streets because somebody thinks that a 10-year-old is a 16-year-old, or an 18-year-old."

Over at Salon 11.13, Donavan rested his chin on his chest, allowing Anderson to clip, then brush the nape of his neck. "You remember earlier today when you called me and I wasn't here?" Anderson asked. I nodded. He gestured to Donavan. "I was helping him jump his car off because he didn't know how to do it." I asked Donavan why, faced with a dead battery on a hot day in late June, it was Anderson he called. "I knew he could fix something like that. And I trust him," he said.

click to enlarge BARBER/MENTOR: Salon 11.13 owner Lawrence Anderson gives Charles Blake III a trim as Charles' father, state Rep. Charles Blake (right), watches. Rep. Blake will oversee the implementation of the Barbershop Books program in Central Arkansas. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • BARBER/MENTOR: Salon 11.13 owner Lawrence Anderson gives Charles Blake III a trim as Charles' father, state Rep. Charles Blake (right), watches. Rep. Blake will oversee the implementation of the Barbershop Books program in Central Arkansas.

***

Like the shop in the Bronx where Irby's Barbershop Books idea was born, New Tyler Barber College in North Little Rock sits across from an elementary school. It's a labyrinth of classrooms and workstations, and the walls are lined with visual aids that span disciplines: anatomy, geometry, health and hygiene, chemistry and conduct. Owner/operator and barber Ricky Bryant runs the place, and has since the '90s, when his father, Daniel, developed colon cancer. Bryant, who was working hair shows as a platform artist for the Andis clipper company in North Carolina, returned to Arkansas and stepped into the family business. He spent his childhood working with his father at Smith Barbershop on Washington Avenue in North Little Rock, "folding towels, linens, whatever needed to be done," he said, and at New Tyler after his father founded the school in 1979.

Bryant practically emanates pragmatism and discipline, so it didn't come as a shock when he said he starts his day at New Tyler at 6:45 a.m. "My dad always told me, 'If you get here early and the water line's busted, you might get it fixed before anyone walks in the door.' "

Like Anderson, Bryant didn't need a lot of convincing after hearing the pitch for Barbershop Books. "I remember the annual Barber Board meeting," he said. "Growing up, and being here since '79, I've had kids come in that know me, whose parents I've never seen. They walk to school, maybe come in here to buy a snack or come get a haircut by themselves." He recounted Irby's moment of inspiration, noting the spot in the school's reception area where the elementary students from across the street tend to sit and wait. "Most of the older kids have a phone," he said, "but the younger kids are just sitting there."

***

The next day at Salon 11.13, Charles Blake's two boys are huddled together in the anteroom. At first, they want the same book about the L.A. Lakers. That subsides. Maybe it was a little premature for them to pick up that particular one; at one point, it was being read upside down. Blake, who was there to get his hair cut, chimed in. "That's how you know it's that fake reading," he said. "When the book is upside down."

In 2010, a D.C.-based public school advocacy group called the Council of the Great City Schools released a report, "A Call For Change," based on 2009 statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among other things, the study concluded that only around 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys were proficient in reading. Irby's team rallies behind a close inverse of that statistic, quoted on the Barbershop Books website: "85 percent of America's black male fourth-grade students are not proficient in reading."

click to enlarge WAITING ROOM: Ari Blake, 7, and Charles Blake III, 8, read in the anteroom at Salon 11.13. - GRACE BROWN
  • Grace Brown
  • WAITING ROOM: Ari Blake, 7, and Charles Blake III, 8, read in the anteroom at Salon 11.13.

When people hear that statistic, Irby said, "a lot of times there's blame on the kid. 'The kid needs to put down this, they need to do this.' What I like to ask people is, 'What cultural factors, what social cues are present in their lives that will lead them to conclude that reading is something they should do?' " Put simply, he said, if you want to get kids to read a book, read a book yourself. "If you don't have any men in your life who are modeling reading for you, if none of your friends are reading, if none of the books you like are being used for instructional purposes at school," he asked, "then why would you conclude that you are a reader?"

Barbershop Books aims, in Irby's words, to "help young black boys and other boys of color identify as readers by connecting books to a male-centered space and by involving men and boys in those early reading experiences."

The word "identity" rolls across Irby's tongue warmly, and often. It's one he sees as the core of this program and, more broadly, at the core of a successful education system. What's more, it's an approach he believes has the potential to bear more fruit than teaching methods that emphasize skills. "I really try to push people to, instead of focusing on skills — and the skills a child doesn't have ... to use an asset-based approach instead of a deficit-based approach," he said. "To ask, 'What are they interested in? What are the things that make them laugh? What are the things that are important to them?' Then, let's see if we can connect reading to those things." For many of the children Irby's taught, he said, "their first and early reading experiences in schools are them doing some sort of assessment where a teacher is telling them all the letters they don't know, all the letter sounds they don't know, all the words they don't know. What kind of effect do you think that will have on their reading identity?" The real mark of progress, Irby observed, is when kids read in situations where reading is not required. "A lot of kids — and I'm sure this is the case in Little Rock — as soon as the school day ends, as soon as the school year ends, they do not touch books," he said. "That has to do with identity, not reading skills. If a kid identifies as a reader, then they're a reader whether school is happening or not."

As of now, there are 59 barbershops listed on the nonprofit's website as part of the program, and that number doesn't include the 10 reading spaces slated for implementation in Central Arkansas, which also include the Goodfellas Barbershops on Asher Avenue, Main Street, Green Mountain Drive and Stagecoach Road; World Champion on Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive; Skillz Barber Shop on 12th Street, Headz Up Barber Shop on Geyer Springs Road and The Hair Show on Kiehl Avenue in Sherwood. When making choices about additions to the program, Irby considers a few criteria. "We want barbershops who have at least 40 kids a month coming in. We also want to have the space to accommodate the bookshelves, and we want the barbershop owners or managers to support, to be willing to host it. That's pretty much it." Irby and Blake plan to schedule a session in mentorship training, likely at St. Mark Baptist Church, where both Blake and Lawrence attend services. "There are thousands of barbershops in black communities across the country," Irby said, "and there are also a number of barbershops that serve primarily Spanish-speaking clientele, who I think would absolutely benefit from the Barbershop Books program."

To recommend a book, volunteer to sponsor a reading space or find out more about the Barbershop Books program, visit barbershopbooks.org.


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