Imagine if you could not read. Things as simple as store signs, the options menu on a video game, the labels of the food that you buy and the song lists on the back of a CD case would all be foreign to you. It would be as though looking at a Chinese newspaper and trying to make sense of it all. Reading is a learned habit that usually requires no thought to actually begin, especially when considering the previously mentioned items. Reading for most people is an instantaneous action.Taking things for granted has become almost an automated characteristic in today’s society. Reading is one ability that most people over the age of 10 do not think twice about. For my classes this semester, I am supposed to read about three hundred pages a week, an activity that holds no enticement for me whatsoever. On the other hand, when I have time (which is usually when school is not in session), I try to read one book every week. At no time, whether it is for academics or pleasure, have I considered how privileged I am to actually be able to read.
Last Saturday my perspective was changed.
On the weekends, I work as a residential counselor for 12 amazing teenage boys who are convicted sex offenders and/or have been sexually abused. In the span of eight hours, two of my guys shed light on a topic that I had not yet come into contact with: illiteracy.
A child starts the process of learning how to read in kindergarten with the foundation of the alphabet and the sound of each letter. From that point on, each year adds to the vocabulary and necessary ability for one to effectively be involved in society. My guess is that from age five or six to 17 or 18 (depending on when he begins school), a child will have at least 10 different teachers. That is 10 different people specially trained in education who fail a child if they do not recognize the child’s inability to read.
I was at my job for only two days and I became aware of the situation. Two days. One of my boys is 17. He’s had 11 years for someone to take notice of his disability, but no one did. This leads me to believe that either the teacher failed the child because of various school conditions (large class sizes, etc.) or sheer apathy. I would throw in “To’ms” manipulative tactics as a way of his trying to cover it up, but that fact is not relevant in this situation. “Tom” actually wants to learn how to read, so it’s not as though he’s completely against the idea. Granted, pride and embarrassment are two emotions that one has which can create a barrier, but as an educator it is one’s responsibility to help the child to her/his fullest potential. If that means looking to a specialist, at least there is some kind of action on the child’s behalf.
Parents are not to be left off the hook either. As the family structure changes from the traditional (mother, father, kids) to the more seemingly modern family (single parent, remarried, no parents, etc.), so do some of the values and responsibilities that were clearly defined for traditional families. In many single-parent homes, the mother or father has to work, sometimes many hours. Afterward, various home responsibilities require attention, pushing the child’s needs out of focus. When this happens, problems arise which may not be taken care of, illiteracy just to name one.
An estimated 861 million adults, or 20 percent of the adult world population is unable to read. Forty million of that exasperating number are American. In the past 13 years, that number has doubled. These statistics just apply to adults. Imagine the numbers if children were included. Due to this fact, the United Nations launched the “Literacy Decade” (2003-2013) on February 13, 2003. The theme being “Literacy as Freedom.” UNESCO, the co-ordinating agency for the decade, issued the following as the international plan of action:
-the development of flexible programs to suit peoples’ different needs
-capacity-building to reinforce the professional core work in literacy
-research to better understand the problems and how to deal with them
-monitoring and evaluation to measure progress
These ambiguous plans fit into any situation: a new YMCA program, Microsoft’s development of new software, or McDonald’s attempt to become more environmentally conscious. Without specific goals, the plan is doomed to fail before it begins, letting down millions of people who need help.
One of my basketball coaches always stressed that to achieve one’s goals, specific fundamentals must be focused on. In the game, dribbling, passing, zone defense and rebounding all play a part in the overall goal which is to win. When my team played poorly, Coach did not say, “All right, next time we are going to play better” and leave it at that. Instead, he gave each individual a targeted area to work on and he gave the team aspects to improve upon. By concentrating on our specific weaknesses, the individuals improved, along with the team. Had Coach not steered us in a direction, we most likely would not have bettered ourselves.
Knowing that “Tom” was passed up for so long infuriates me. People need to recognize that this problem is a global concern, but also has bearing on their lives too.. Who knows, a child that is ignored could one day have cured cancer or invented something which would improve the lifestyle of all mankind. Unless the child is taught how to read, those ideas could be lost.
As I once told someone amazing who did not believe he could inspire anyone, “Most of the time, we are unaware of the affect we have on others. Who you are changes and inspires those around you in various and inexplicable ways.” The smallest action, good or bad, can have lasting impressions. It is our decision what kind of effect we have on others.
Proper attention and effort must be brought to combat illiteracy, one with more specific actions to meet the specific problems. Even more than that is the need for people to care and not just brush illiteracy off as something which does not affect them at all. It is going to take more than a few people to lower the statistics. Until that time, “Tom” and I will spend Saturday and Sunday nights tackling motorcycle magazines and hopefully one day, Hemingway.
Jaylyn Bergner is a senior majoring in communication with a minor in creative writing.
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