Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reading, Writing, and … Oh, Wait! They Can’t “See Spot Run!”

Today is International Literacy Day, an observance started by UNESCO in the 1960s. This year the theme is Peace, a notion that through literacy comes understanding.

You might think of literacy as a third-world problem we should help eradicate. However, illiteracy is homegrown as well. Twenty countries in the world have a higher literacy rate than the U.S.; 24 other countries tie with the U.S. for the next spot on the rankings list. Naturally, some of these countries are much smaller than the U.S., but even so …

One Thanksgiving in the early ’90s, my husband and I returned to Chicago from our out-of-state holiday with a Christmas tree for our living room and a large wreath for our downstairs (i.e., basement-dwelling) neighbors. They were an elderly couple, yet perhaps not as ancient as they looked—their skin the type brought on by poor diet and a hardscrabble life. We mounted the wreath on their door and left a Christmas card with it so they’d know the next morning who had left it (i.e., so they wouldn’t worry about how it had gotten there).

They were perplexed anyway. And soon our happy gesture of holiday spirit became an embarrassment on several levels.

The elderly couple couldn’t read. Couldn’t make out the simplest of cards and certainly couldn’t puzzle through my handwritten note. They sheepishly showed us the card and asked for our help in deciphering it. We made a joke, I think, about my poor penmanship to deflect the sorry truth of the matter, but it broke my heart.

More recently, I met a woman who is my age with only a third-grade education. Not illiterate, but deeply impaired when it comes to reading and writing. She cleans houses for a living, but has higher aspirations: to be a caregiver to an elderly woman. She’s daunted by the GED she needs to pursue this goal.

I’ve been creating exercises for her to improve not only her language skills but also her confidence. She needs a lot of confidence to go after that GED. I realize she may never reach that point: too much ground to cover. But if I could boost her English skills enough for her reading and comprehension to be pleasurable and easy—enough to open new doors for her and introduce her to lives and cultures and ideas she has no access to now—that would be something, wouldn’t it?

The readers of the world are so fortunate. I’m grateful, today especially, to be one of them.

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