- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2009

“Wow! I’ve never owned my own book before!” That’s what Jamal exclaimed when I handed him a brand-new, free dictionary at his third-grade classroom in Wheaton.

“Can I write my name in it?” he asked eagerly. I nodded and smiled, pointing to the very first page, where there was a pre-printed blank line for him to write his name. He quickly picked up his pen and very carefully wrote his name above the black line. Looking up, I saw that all the other third-graders were following his lead. They held pens, pencils or markers and earnestly wrote their names on the front page of each dictionary we had just given them. A loud chatter arose in the classroom, and the teacher finally raised her hands, palms toward the class, and asked the youngsters to settle down.

“This is your book,” I explained. “Not your Mom’s, not your big sister’s and not the school’s. You can use it for all sorts of things.”

The enthusiastic students all looked up at me. “Let’s say you need to do a report on George Washington,” I began again. “There he is, on Page 353. You can learn all about him.” A couple of the children started flipping through the book to find Page 353. “Let’s say you have to do a report on the 16th president,” I hinted.

“That’s Abraham Lincoln!” a little girl named Clara proclaimed. “That’s right!” I answered. “You can find him on Page 362.” More children started flipping through their dictionaries to find Lincoln’s profile.

“You see, you can learn about all the presidents,” I explained. “Let’s say you get stuck with a really hard one,” I said, looking around the room. “What if everybody else in your class gets the easy presidents, like Lincoln and Jefferson and Clinton? What if you have to do your report on Millard Fillmore?”

“Filmard who?” Erica blurted out.

“You can find him on Page 361,” I whispered really loudly, with my hand held up to the side of my mouth, as if nobody else could hear me. “This dictionary can help you with your report on a president or if you want to learn about your own state. Who knows what state you live in?”

“Maryland,” came the loud response from the class.

“That’s great — now go to Page 417 and look at the map of the United States. Where is Maryland on this map?” I asked, holding up the map so the class could see the correct page and follow along. One girl peered through her glasses and timidly raised her hand halfway up. Pointing to her, I nodded encouragingly for an answer. “Is it over here on the right side?” She showed me where she meant, with her finger covering the mid-Atlantic states.

“That’s right - very good!” I agreed, holding up my dictionary and pointing as precisely as I could. All the other children were talking among themselves, looking over the map in their dictionaries, too. Some were leaning over a neighbor’s desk, pointing to the correct spot in the book.

Their quickness to follow along and eagerness to learn was energizing. We continued to move through the section on the solar system, then onto sign language and Braille and got to their favorite part of the dictionary: the “list of long words.” From disestablishmentarianism to supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, almost every child wanted to try to say the words out loud. The class shared lots of laughs and saw that a book — even a dictionary — can be fun and bring laughter.

I got to share the same message and give out free dictionaries to four more classrooms full of third-graders that morning: more than 100 on that day alone. My fellow Rotarians visited 13 other elementary schools in lower Montgomery County and found the same joy and thrill from youngsters who also were surprised to learn that they, too, would own their very first book.

Our local Rotary clubs have been giving dictionaries to third-graders for almost a decade. Our goal is to give them out to as many in the Washington area each year as we can afford. It’s a rewarding treat and very important to give tools that children can use to enhance their opportunities to learn.

One school principal asked what we do as Rotarians. I explained that we are a community-service organization that gives dictionaries to third-graders every year; we help needy families repair their homes; we raise money to eliminate polio around the world; we give scholarships to needy local teens who otherwise could not afford college; we help clean up Rock Creek; and we ring the bells with the Salvation Army every year.

She was amazed to learn all this. Formed in 1905, Rotary International is the oldest service club in the world. As we have thrived for more than a century, our nonpartisan reputation has earned us a seat in the U.N. General Assembly because of our nonpolitical approach to helping humanity wherever the need arises.

More than 20 years ago, Rotary created the initiative to eradicate polio from the globe. When we started, nearly 1,000 cases of the disease were reported every day, all over the world. After 10 years of progress, the World Health Organization joined our fight. Within the past five years, we have gotten the total number of polio cases reported in an entire year down to fewer than 2,000 - and now polio exists in just four countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and India. Seventeen years and $800 million in small donations into our ardent initiative, Microsoft founder Bill Gates was so impressed with the progress of polio elimination (Polio Plus, as we call it) that he joined our effort and donated $630 million to help us finish the job.

Rotarians also dig wells in sub-Saharan Africa and in India, collect medical supplies for remote villages in the Andes and the Philippines, bring disaster relief to earthquake and flood victims, build self-sufficient energy units in remote areas, help feed refugees when wars erupt from Bosnia to Palestine to Nigeria and Afghanistan, build bridges and shelters for villagers, offer microloans to people too poor for banks to acknowledge, and invest $26 million dollars every year to send 1,100 college scholars to study all over the world - more than the Fulbright and Rhodes scholarship programs combined.

Our motto, “Service Above Self,” says much and has inspired almost 2 million people in the world to join Rotary to help in their communities and make their part of the world a better place.

At the end of my sessions with the five classes of third-graders, I started to walk out of the school, now close to lunchtime. A boy eyed me suspiciously as we walked toward each other in the hallway. As we got close, he pointed up at me in sudden recognition and said, “You’re the man who gave me my dictionary two years ago! Thanks - I still use it!”

• James B. Morris, a member of the Rock Creek Rotary, is a writer living in Montgomery County.

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