At Stan the Man’s bookmobile, kids buy books with acts of kindness

Why We Wrote This

How do you teach children to value kindness? In Georgia, acts of generosity and compassion can earn kids more than a smile or a pat on the back.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Stan Tucker talks to grade-schooler Jaxon Styles at a Marietta, Georgia, studio on Sept. 21, 2020, for a video about Jaxon’s winning entry in a book-publishing competition.

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When Stan Tucker was teaching kindergarten, a student approached him before a book fair to say he wouldn’t be going because his mom didn’t have any money. It broke Mr. Tucker’s heart – and it gave him an idea for a way to get books into kids’ hands.

He started hosting book giveaways at schools in 2015, during a year off from teaching. Over the past five years, his Leap for Literacy program has grown. He now gives away 2,500 books a year. But his program promotes more than literacy. At his Read ’n’ Roll bookmobile, kids pay for books with kindness tickets.

Kindnesses that earn tickets run the gamut, from “I helped a student that dropped his books in the hall” to “I invited a student who was playing alone to play with our group.”

As Jaxon, a Read ’n’ Roll regular, puts it: “Stan teaches me how to be kind, especially when no one else is watching. It’s important to be kind because other people, if you are kind to them, they will be kind back.”

On Stan Tucker’s wildly painted Leap for Literacy bookmobile – crowned the Read ’n’ Roll – the books cost nothing. But they don’t come free. The currency that will buy them is kindness.   

Acts are each recorded on kindness tickets that are legal tender on the Read ’n’ Roll.

When the Read ’n’ Roll shows up at a school, the kids excitedly bounce into a line for their chance to exchange their tickets for books. 

Kindnesses that earn tickets run the gamut, from “I helped a student that dropped his books in the hall” to “I invited a student who was playing alone to play with our group.”

When Mr. Tucker, now working as a waiter and camp counselor, was teaching kindergarten in suburban Atlanta in 2014, a student approached him before a book fair to say he wouldn’t be going because his mom didn’t have any money. It broke Mr. Tucker’s heart – and it gave him an idea for a way to get books into kids’ hands. 

He started his program during a year off from teaching in 2015 when, hoping to keep working with kids, he was sometimes lugging more than 1,000 books in a beat-up Honda Element for giveaways at schools. 

But to build the enterprise – because donors like measurables – Mr. Tucker knew he needed something to count. He landed on a measure of kindness.

“The quickest impact when you do something kind – you say something nice, you do something for them – is that smile that comes on their face, that instant gratification, of seeing that person happy,” says Mr. Tucker.  

A rising tide of kindness

Over the past five years, Leap for Literacy has grown. He now gives away 2,500 books a year. More than 13,000 grade school students have traded kindness tickets for books. And, last summer, a new writing program served 500 children, a handful of whose writing the nonprofit has illustrated and published. 

Mr. Tucker, who loved books as a kid, says it seemed impossible to make his dream work on a waiter’s pay. But, he adds, “at every turn, something has happened to keep this going.” 

For example, there was his chance encounter with the country artist Zac Brown, an Atlanta native, who came into the restaurant where Tucker worked. Mr. Tucker laid the menus down and queried Mr. Brown’s five kids about school.  

Because he liked the way Mr. Tucker interacted with his family, Mr. Brown gave the waiter his card and told him, “Maybe we can help each other out.” Indeed, Mr. Brown was starting a summer camp and offered Mr. Tucker a camp counselor job as well as an old tour bus for a bookmobile.

Another fortunate turn was the $25,000 check he got on The Ellen DeGeneres Show late last year. He used it to substantially expand his program. Five hundred kids participated remotely in a summer writing program in which they were given blank books to write in. A few of the books they wrote were chosen by the Leap for Literacy board to be illustrated and published. Mr. Tucker hopes to one day fill the Read ’n’ Roll with those books. 

His next goal is to scale up his programs nationally – even globally. He plans to expand to 50,000 book donations and illustrate at least 10 children’s books in the next couple of years. And he’d like to reach 1 million acts of kindness.

“What Stan is doing is amazing,” says Quenecia Styles-Smith, whose son, Jaxon, participated in the summer writing program. It’s one thing to admonish a child for behaving badly, she says, but, “it’s another to notice when a child holds a door for someone” and to recognize and bring awareness to it.

It’s not all about the reward for being kind, says Ms. Styles-Smith, because “he talks about how it makes people feel ... how it’s cool to be kind to other people, and that’s important.”

To be sure, some research suggests encouraging quid pro quo kindness can be counterproductive because kindness ought to be an end in itself, not a means to an end. But some who research kindness say proactive behavior modeling is one of the most effective ways to fight bullying.   

In that way, Mr. Tucker’s effort is part of a broader shift in education – and parenting, suggests John-Tyler Binfet, a University of British Columbia education professor who has interviewed more than 3,000 students in his research on kindness and its impacts.

“Here is a teacher – and one who is certainly not alone – who has purposely and proactively decided to put emphasis and focus on pro-social behavior versus anti-social behavior,” says Professor Binfet. Celebrating good behavior, he adds, “changes the climate.”

The birth of “Stan the Man”

How Mr. Tucker came about the nickname, “Stan the Man,” is part of the inspiration he imparts to kids. His full name is Stanley Thomas Tucker Jr., after his father who was killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver when the younger Tucker was 8.

He went by Thomas most of his life. But when he had to take a restaurant job in his struggle to keep Leap for Literacy afloat, everyone called him by the first name on his application: Stan. But to him, “Stan” had always been his dad.

In his book, “Stan and the Man,” Mr. Tucker recalls the transformation from Thomas to Stan: “The man loved me before I knew this world. He gave me his name to give me something that I would always remember him by.     

“I’m thankful for the time I had with the man, and I hope that he is proud of the man that I am.”  

That genuine depth inspires children, says Ms. Styles-Smith, mother of Jaxon, a second grader who participated in the summer writing program. 

Even though part of the program is transactional, it is built on the idea that kindness is, as Professor Binfet puts it, “on the down-low.”

In that way, the Read ’n’ Roll cleaves the philosophy of how kindness works.

“The empirical question is, what are these children walking away with other than books?” observes Daniel Fessler, director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.  

An optimist, he says, would say that “people do become more altruistic through an intentional process. So, the earn-a-book program, well, that’s just the training wheels, the scaffolding through which learning takes place. ... They simply learn to become kind.”

No matter the measurables on his nonprofit, Stan is a guide for the students and parents who join his program. When Jaxon’s grandfather passed away from COVID-19 in the spring, says Ms. Styles-Smith, Mr. Tucker was there to support the boy.

For Jaxon, his summer writing project didn’t earn him a published book. But a short video of him reading his story about his dream of meeting Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones caught the attention of a local TV network. That story in turn sparked a call from the Falcons’ publicist to talk about making it happen. 

“I hope it happens,” says Jaxon. “Julio Jones isn’t just a hero to me, but a superhero. That’s why I wrote the book.” 

But such public rewards for his words and his acts aren’t what Jaxon recalls as he thinks about the Read ’n’ Roll and Stan the Man.

“Stan teaches me how to be kind, especially when no one else is watching,” says Jaxon. “It’s important to be kind because other people, if you are kind to them, they will be kind back.” 

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