Mabel is a widow deep in poverty with two hungry children of her own. Washing other people’s laundry ten hours a day, Mabel earns barely enough money to keep them fed. To keep a roof over their heads, she works for a real estate man who moves her and the children from shack to shack “to clean them up and make them salable.” But poor though she is, Mabel can’t watch a baby go unloved, so she makes room in her home and her heart for Jimmy, an abandoned baby that was left on her doorstep.
Throughout his childhood, Jimmy will wear old, second-hand clothes because that’s the best Mabel can do. His shoelaces will be broken and knotted. He’ll never own a pair of skates, a bicycle, a baseball glove or a toy of any kind. But when his little town opens a public library, he and a girl named Margaret will be the first in line to receive library cards. One day, as the pair are searching for books they’ve not yet read, the librarian says, “Goodness, Margaret and Jimmy, I believe you’ve read all the children’s books we have! If you wish, you can start on the other shelves.”
Margaret Mead will grow up to author 20 books and serve as president of a number of important scientific associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She will receive 28 honorary doctorate degrees from America’s leading universities and in 1978, be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As an adolescent, Jimmy hitchhikes his way from Pennsylvania to Florida and back again with only 35 cents in his pocket. By the time he graduates from high school, he will have visited all but 3 of the 48 contiguous states. In the Navy, Jim rises to the rank of lieutenant commander, serving on some 49 different islands in the South Pacific during World War II. Each night, he writes his thoughts and impressions in a journal:
Sitting there in the darkness, illuminated only by the flickering lamplight, I visualized the aviation scenes in which I had participated, the landing beaches I’d seen, the remote outposts, the exquisite islands with bending palms, and especially the valiant people I’d known: the French planters, the Australian coast watchers, the Navy nurses, the Tonkinese laborers, the ordinary sailors and soldiers who were doing the work, and the primitive natives to whose jungle fastnesses I had traveled.
The book that will emerge from Jim’s journal will be published as Tales of the South Pacific and win the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. And by the time he’s done, James Michener will have written more than 40 books that will collectively sell more than 100 million copies. He will be granted more than 30 honorary doctorates in 5 fields and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. His cash donations to public libraries and universities will exceed 117 million dollars.
It seems a child can learn a lot by just reading.
PS – In an interview he gave at age 84, James Michener recalled:
When I was young and went out on the streets, and I was on the streets more than almost anybody you know, counting country roads, I had hardly a negative experience. Nobody wanted to give me drugs. Nobody wanted to con me. Nobody assaulted me sexually. Nobody wanted me to become an alcoholic. Nobody wanted me to be a gambler. I was supported by my entire society. I never had any money, but I had moral support, and I knew it, and I felt it.
But the young person today doesn’t have that. There are a lot of pitfalls out there today for the young kid that I never faced. So I am not going to moralize and say, “Why don’t you behave like I did.” Because he has no option of doing that. The schools aren’t as good for one thing. And maybe the colleges aren’t teaching as rigorously as mine did.
But I do think one thinks back. And the great problems that I see are the fact that we are becoming a consumer nation rather than a producing nation. That we think we can run this great country on hot dog stands and electronics from Japan and shoes from Italy. And what are we making ourselves? What are we producing within our own society that keeps us strong?
The second thing is the weakness in education. That terrifies me because my life was saved by education, and I want that same thing to be available for the next kid that comes along. And I think that it is in greater peril than it was in my day.