The last days of summer break are slowly ticking away, and James Reynolds is scrambling.
In between serving customers and running the shop at the Great Cookie in Mondawmin Mall, where he works full time, the 16-year-old City College student is trying to squeeze in reading all 320 pages of a book about genocide in the 1930s Dominican Republic.
Studying The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat is not exactly the way he wants to spend his final flash of freedom, Reynolds says with a sigh, but he is determined to get a good start on his senior year when school starts Monday.
"I always wait until the last week," says Reynolds, who dropped by the Barnes & Noble in Towson on Wednesday to buy the book. "If I read it too early in the summer, I might forget everything by the time school starts. This way, if my teacher asks me about it, I'll remember everything. If I read every night while it's slow at work, I should finish by the weekend."
Whatever the reason, whatever the distraction, whatever the excuse - whether playing video games every afternoon won out, social activities beckoned or time seemed to be in abundance - students across the region are rushing this week to cram in all the literary classics that some schools require be completed before classes resume next week.
With time running out, such desperate dawdlers are showing up at public libraries pleading for copies of John Knowles' A Separate Peace, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
Some head to bookstore information desks searching for Elie Wiesel's Night and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. In some cases, harried parents are the ones calling in and dropping by after work to pick up must-reads such as the perpetual favorite Animal Farm by George Orwell, for their young procrastinators.
"I've been doing this for 30 years, and you see this every year," says Helen Blumberg, manager of the fiction and young adult department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street. "No matter how prepared the school systems are at giving students an advance list, there always will be students who read their books early on and students who wait until the last possible minute."
Sasha Carr learned her lesson two years ago. As an incoming freshman at all-girls Western High School, the 15-year-old from Northwest Baltimore had no idea that she had books to read before school started. To catch up, she had to read a book of mythology and two Steinbeck novels in a week. This time, heading into her third year, Carr finished her three required readings early.
"It's not the reading part that's hard," Carr says. "You have to fill out a journal, and you have to do charts and answer questions about mood, setting and characterization. The teachers here, you never know when they're going to test you on certain passages in the book. You're pretty much messed up if you don't read."
Worried about starting off badly at a new school, Douglas Carter dropped by the Towson Barnes & Noble this week to pick up his summer reading. A little more than a week before he starts classes at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, the 15-year-old flipped through five books to select two for his required reading.
Not that it was the only factor in his decision, but Carter quickly surmised that Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None came in at 275 pages. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien logged 320 pages. A Separate Peace was a mere 208 pages. And Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings reached 284.
"I registered for school late, so I only just found out what books I'm supposed to read," says Carter, a freshman who was visiting his grandmother in Randallstown for the summer. He settled on the mystery and one that was 107 pages long. "I have to read Of Mice and Men, but I figured I might like the mystery," he said. "It's not the shortest, but it's not the longest either. I can probably finish both by the end of the week."
Such preschool stress and end-of-summer rush could spread to more schools as a growing number of educators fear that the months-long absence of stimulation in the summer could lead to cerebral mush by the time schools open in the fall.
So, in the hope of countering the effects of what watching several episodes of America's Got Talent can do to the brain, many school systems team up with public libraries to issue lists of recommended books and promise extra credit, prizes and other incentives to entice reluctant readers into picking up a novel.
Some schools, including City College and Western, and most high-achieving classes for advanced-placement students at schools around the state, leave nothing to chance.
They expect students to juggle camp, vacations and running to the malls with analyzing weighty stories about empowerment, race, class struggles, the search for identity, the bonds of friendship and wartime atrocities.