Spreading Literacy

This past week, I attended a fundraiser for a local facility that provides tutoring in literacy, English, and GED tests. A non-profit organization, they have one yearly fundraiser to fund their building, the administrators, and faculty. They have a board of directors and maybe four women who run the place and work with the many volunteers who do the tutoring. I volunteered there for several years, working with several on their math section of the GED and teaching ESL classes. It’s an amazing place that helps a lot of people who dropped out of school years ago and need a GED to qualify for better paying job. They also have a lot of immigrants who are learning English so they can find jobs. Volunteers touch people’s lives and help them to find their way to a better place.

I was a literacy tutor for many years, working with people who for some reason or another didn’t learn to read well. For a while, I was president of the local literacy chapter. We worked through the library which gave our name to people asking for help. We worked with several people that left a huge imprint on me. Their stories taught me how lucky I was to grow up in a home where education and books were valued. Many of them had teachers or principals who, at some point in their young lives, told them they were stupid and would never amount to anything. The sad thing was, these people as children believed what they were told and went through the rest of their lives believing that lie. They quit trying to learn and consequently got behind. They weren’t really stupid but had a knowledge gap because they didn’t think they could learn.

A lot of our students were older people who hadn’t learned how to read because they’d quit school to work during the Depression or World War II. Back in those days, that’s what the older kids did when families were struggling to keep food on the table. Older kids could find jobs doing grunt work that required no reading or math. They learned skills that supported their families, and they learned strategies for doing things without reading.

One man talked about driving a truck all his life. He could read road numbers but couldn’t read street names. He’d park his rig on the edge of a big city and call a cab. On the cab ride, he’d memorize the route through cities or the route to his destination. The cab would take him back to his rig and he could finish his haul. One lady talked about having drivers licenses in several states. Back then, everyone took paper-and-pencil tests before the driving test. She’d go to the drivers license bureau right before lunch because she knew the people would be very anxious for her to finish her test so they could go to lunch. They would have to stay late to explain the wrong answers to her which would cut into their lunch times. She couldn’t read a word on the test but could read the face of the proctor. She’d move her pencil over answers and find the right answer by reading their faces. They’d frown slightly if it was wrong, and their faces would ease if her pencil was over the right one. She said she made a perfect score one time. Another man told me he was the kind of student every teacher dreaded having. He said he was too cool to learn and would never use anything they wanted to teach him. Once he got out into the real world, he found out he wasn’t very cool and he needed to know a lot of the things his teachers tried to teach him. To get a better job to support him and his family, he needed help filling in that huge knowledge gap he’d created in himself. He was full of regret.

In today’s world, being functionally illiterate is a huge handicap. Everything we do depends on being able to read and do basic math. One in six people are dropouts. Over 70 percent of those living in poverty have a low literacy level and about 75 percent of inmates are dropouts or have low literacy levels (see this article for details). Becoming functionally literate is the best way out of poverty.

It’s never too late to learn. One man in his 80s came to our literacy group for help. He’d quit school during the Depression and never learned to read well. He wanted to learn how to write before he died so he could write love letters to his wife. He worked with us for several years and was a quick learner. He read his poetry at our fundraiser dinner and left us with tears in our eyes. When he died a few years later, I heard his grandson read one or two of his love letters to his wife at the funeral. His proudest achievement had been learning to read and write.

If you’re reading this, you have a blessing that many others do not. Enjoy it.

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