WHEN Jim Brozina’s older daughter, Kathy, was in fourth grade, he was reading Beverly Cleary’s “Dear Mr. Henshaw” to her at bedtime, when she announced she’d had enough. “She said, ‘Dad, that’s it, I’ll take over from here,’ ” Mr. Brozina recalled. “I was, ‘Oh no.’ I didn’t want to stop. We really never got back to reading together after that.”
Mr. Brozina, a single father and an elementary school librarian who reads aloud for a living, did not want the same thing to happen with his younger daughter, Kristen. So when she hit fourth grade, he proposed The Streak: to see if they could read together for 100 straight bedtimes without missing once. They were both big fans of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and on Nov. 11, 1997, started The Streak with “The Tin Woodman of Oz.”
When The Streak reached 100, they celebrated with a pancake breakfast, and Kristen whispered, “I think we should try for 1,000 nights.”
Mr. Brozina was delighted, but what he was thinking was, a thousand nights?! “I thought, we’ll never do it,” he recalled. “And then we got to 1,000, and we said, ‘How can we stop?’ ”
For 3,218 nights (and some mornings, if Mr. Brozina was coming home too late to read), The Streak went on. It progressed from James Marshall’s picture books about George and Martha (two close friends who happen to be hippos) to middle-school classics like “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” to the 14 Oz books (which they read four times each), toHarry Potter, Agatha Christie, Dickens and Shakespeare, continuing on, until Kristen’s first day of college.
In those nine-plus years, they survived many close calls. When Kristen was still in elementary school, her father and older sister went to Washington. “The phone rings at 10:45 at the hotel and it’s Kristen,” Mr. Brozina recalled. “She says, ‘Dad, we forgot The Streak!’ Fortunately, I always travel with several books and we read right then and there.”
As Kristen got older, she was active in community theater groups that would rehearse late, and a few dozen times, Mr. Brozina turned up and read to her between scenes. One night, a rehearsal for “I Remember Mama” was supposed to end at 11:30, but the director, upset with the performance, was yelling at the players. “Our rule was we had to read before midnight and it had to be at least 10 minutes,” Mr. Brozina said. “It was 11:45 and he wasn’t letting up.”
“Dad took me off the stage,” Kristen said. “I was 17.”
“We sat in the auditorium and I read to her,” said Mr. Brozina.
Their shared reading provided a shared language. When Mr. Brozina asks if Kristen’s absolutely sure, she’ll answer, “Certain there’s a jertain in the curtain” (Dr. Seuss). If Mr. Brozina orders a hamburger, Kristen will say, “I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit” (Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night” ). By high school, Kristen had a busy social life. “I’d be out with friends, and say, ‘It’s 11:30, we need to stop back at my house.’ A carload of teenagers would come in. They’d play some game or cards in the living room. I’d go upstairs to Dad’s room and he’d read to me.”
“Then she’d go back out with her friends and I’d go to bed,” Mr. Brozina said.
People who knew Kristen and her dad (shown together in the photo above) knew The Streak, and accommodated it. One night, Mr. Brozina was at a woman friend’s house. “Things were progressing very nicely,” he said. “And she jumps up and says, ‘Did you read to Kristen yet?’ Holy smokes, I took off on two wheels.”
Like all earth-shattering acts, there was more to The Streak than met the eye, although for years it was unspoken. About the time The Streak started, Kristen’s family shrunk from six to two in a year’s time. Her two surviving grandparents died. Her sister, who is seven years older, went off to Yale. And her mother left her father. “It was just the two of us,” Kristen said. “The Streak was stability when everything else was unstable. It was something I knew would always be there.
“People kept leaving me, but with The Streak, I knew that nothing would come before The Streak. In high school, I had friends who never talked to their parents. It never occurred to me not to. If someone takes care of you, you want to be with them.”
Her father felt that, too. “With a family of two, I wanted her to be absolutely sure in her mind that I was here for her,” he said.
But he had other reasons. At 61, he’s part of a generation that held reading as an almost magical ticket to upward mobility. He’s been a school librarian here for 38 years, knows most everyone in this modest blue-collar town, and whenever he bumps into one of his former students, the first thing he asks is, “Are you reading?” followed by his mantra: “If you love to read, you’ll probably go to college, maybe for free. You’ll get a better job, get a higher income, live longer.”
Over the years, he has built a collection of 700 of the best books he and Kristen read together. “I don’t have much money to pass on,” he said. “But these books, she’ll read to hers and they’ll read to theirs. And they’ll read to the generations down the lines. It’s a means for me to touch generations I’ll never see. They’ll all be smart. I can’t imagine these books will never be used. Every single one of them is so good.”
“Of course,” he said, “it depends on Kristen.”
“My Streak can be longer than your Streak,” said Kristen. “I’ll start before fourth grade.”
The Streak ended on Sept. 2, 2006. It was Kristen’s first day of college, and it was time. Her dorm room was so crowded with boxes, he read to her in a stairwell. The Streak ended as it began, with L. Frank Baum, the first chapter of his most famous “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” “It was hard,” Kristen said. “Not only was I moving away, but we were ending this thousands-of-times tradition. There’s nothing I’ve ever done with that consistency, not even brushing my teeth.”
“I knew it had to be the last,” said Mr. Brozina.
“It wouldn’t have worked,” said Kristen.
“It would have been stringing it out artificially,” he said. “Did you see Willie Mays at the end of his career? Sad. It was past time.”
This spring, Kristen graduates from Rowan University, a half-hour’s drive up the road in Glassboro. She has performed as you’d expect for a product of The Streak, an English major with a 3.94 average.
“One B,” her father said.
“An unfortunate situation,” said Kristen.
She also won two national writing contests, was Resident Assistant of the year, an editor of the humor and literary publications and won the annual English department award.
During college, she didn’t give much thought to The Streak until recently, when she had to write an essay for graduate school, and hunting a topic, realized, “The Streak is kind of interesting.”
Who knows why anyone gets in anywhere, but you’d have to believe The Streak would be a winner, and recently Kristen was accepted to the master’s in liberal arts program at theUniversity of Pennsylvania. She doesn’t have the money to go. But certain as that jertain, the young woman has a plan: She’s going to get a job when she graduates, save and reapply in a year or two.