FERNDALE — Eddie Connor, like so many, feels that “The Great Gatsby” is an educational book that should continue to be taught in schools.
However, at the same time, Connor, a teacher at University High School in Ferndale, feels sometimes books such as “The Great Gatsby” may not be helping all students to read and comprehend.
Last school year, Connor, 31, ran a new nonprofit program, Boys 2 Books, to help young male students at UHS with any literacy issues they may have and with common issues teenage males face. He plans to start the program again in November.
“For high school in general, ‘The Great Gatsby’ is one of the main books prescribed, but before we give them that, we have to give them reading that helps them find some relatability,” Connor said. “This program has an emphasis on leadership, literacy and life skills — and just getting prepared for life after high school, whether that is college or a trade, and being successful and significant in society.”
Connor graduated from Ferndale High School and went on to earn his degree in history and minor in physical education at Eastern Michigan University. But it wasn’t until he began going for his master’s degree at Marygrove College that he realized the need to help male students with literacy.
“When I began my master’s degree, what I really began to see was so much negativity and ambivalence that young men have toward reading,” Connor said. “When they would open a book, their eyes would close. It is affecting so many black and Hispanic males, and 60 percent of residents in Detroit are functionally illiterate, and that means they don’t vote, they aren’t reading to their kids and that cycle continues, and you see the negative strain on the community.”
Instead of bringing in “The Great Gatsby,” for the 50 students he had last school year, Connor brought in “Letters to a Young Brother” by Hill Harper. In the book, Harper addresses street violence, gangs, drugs and dropping out of high school.
Combined with the reading, Connor said he also brings in guest speakers from time to time to talk with the students.
“By bringing in other males from the community, we show the students they can be more than a basketball player or entertainer, and there is more to life than just being on a TV screen and in a magazine,” he said. “They can still be successful and significant, and can contribute to their community.”
Connor grew up in Oak Park but spent some of his early years in Kingston, Jamaica, with his mother, who was an educator and evangelist on the island.
During Connor’s sophomore year at FHS, he was diagnosed with stage-4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and missed most of his sophomore year while battling the disease.
“Before Christmas vacation I was lethargic in school, and that wasn’t me, so I went to the doctor and they could see a blockage in my chest,” he said. “They told me don’t ask why, but that is what I did for the next two years; it was total hell, but I overcame it.
“I was faced with the prospect of death, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. But I continued on, and I am a 15-year-plus survivor of cancer.”
While Connor faced a different challenge in his youth, he is hoping his trials can help him connect with the students he is trying to help.
“I am trying to create a bridge to help these young men transition from boyhood to manhood,” he said. “I grew up without a father in my life, and maybe I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes or ran into as many hurdles if I had that mentor to help me. That is what I want to be; I want to provide what I didn’t have and help these young men pursue their goals and be the best person they can be.”
Andre Buford, the leader of student and family affairs at UHS, said the Boys 2 Books program is not only vital at UHS, but could also work in other centers around Detroit.
“I think it is a very uplifting program, and it is giving our young males an opportunity to realize that it is OK to read and dialogue with one another about literature,” Buford said. “I think this program would be huge in any sector of Detroit and could get more young males to realize the importance of reading and dialogue, and could go a long way both academically and socially.”
Connor said he does want to branch out the program throughout metro Detroit to schools, community centers or places of worship, and he is willing to help others start in another location.
Whether the program continues just at UHS or grows, Buford said it is all a credit to Connor’s drive.
“(Connor) is highly motivational, and students look at him as a young mentor and what he stands for and how he is well-spoken,” he said. “When talking with parents and people in the building, he always has a positive vibe and helps the family culture we have here at the school.
“I don’t think anyone could have started the program the way Eddie does it, because the passion he has for it is the reason for the success it is having. He is a very driven person, and you can see the excitement he had in trying to create it.”
For more information on Boys 2 Books, visit www.eddieconnor.com or call (313) 469-1947.