Here’s a link to an article I wrote for my church’s newsletter, The Branch, summarizing my thoughts from my Lenten fast (page 11): http://www.stbs.net/mediafiles/branchmay10web.pdf
I have a host of thoughts and emotions as I conclude these 40 days of operating at a low level of literacy. I’m sure that more insights are to come, but here are the ones that I’m most mindful of as I re-adjust to the world as a functionally literate adult:
I’ve had to be more dependent upon others than I have in a very long time these past few weeks and I am relishing my new-found independence. I can cook with recipes again, look up a basketball schedule online, send out e-mails to my running group about this week’s training run, plan for an upcoming vacation on my own, type in directions on my phone’s GPS, finally read the health care bill that’s been passed, send and read texts , etc. These are seemingly simple tasks to some but monumental to those who are struggling with literacy. And, it is so great to be able to do these things again.
I’ve found myself absolutely devouring books, magazines, blogs, Bible verses, Wikipedia articles, liturgy and even things like billboards and the nutritional information on the cereal box. In some ways I feel like I did when I was in elementary school and finally able to read my first chapter book (it was The Baby-sitters Club if you must know), empowered and thrilled by the new world that has been opened up to me. Today I finished a book in one sitting and can’t event remember that last time I did so! The ability to read & write is a gift and one that I confess I’ve taken for granted for most of my life. It feels truly liberating to have access to so much knowledge and insight again.
My predominant thought though is this: adult learners are some of the bravest people I know. It is no small thing to navigate our world without this basic skill. It requires immense courage to admit to friends, family or a literacy organization that you need help in the areas of reading and writing. Further, it requires sheer determination and humility to acquire these skills at a point in life when responsibilities abound, time is scarce and those teaching you are often your peers.
The stories of the individuals I’ve been privileged to tutor are equally gut-wrenching and inspiring: imagine having never darkened the halls of a school building and making the decision at the age of 80 to learn to read. Imagine having flown presidents and dignitaries all over your home continent and having to take on two, hourly jobs to make ends meet because you now reside in a country that doesn’t speak your native language. Imagine wanting to read for entertainment and for knowledge but having children’s books as the only resource available at your reading level. Imagine being in the highest, socioeconomic class and having people assume that because you’re wealthy you must be educated and therefore the only people you’ve been able to tell about your struggle are those at the literacy center. Imagine being paid a wage below the legal minimum and unable to read at a high enough level to determine what rights you are entitled to. Imagine finally working up the courage to get help and then being told that the average wait time for a tutor is two years. These are the realities for so many of the amazing, resilient individuals I’ve met these past few years and my experience these past forty days has only heightened my admiration and respect for them.
This Easter, as I reflect upon Jesus and his ongoing work of redemption in the world, my prayer for those struggling with literacy is this: may God grant you the strength and the courage to confront the darkness that’s currently around you and with his help and the help of others, may that darkness be beautifully redeemed by the illumination that literacy provides.
Well, I’m growing frustrated with this whole endeavor. In fact, I had moments this week where I was so sick of being dependent upon others and being left in the dark on some key pieces of information that I gave up on this whole discipline for long stretches of time in protest. A few specific events made this week particularly difficult. Let me share.
I played Scrabble with my roommates last Sunday (the one day a week I allow myself to read and write) and due to the combination of bad letters (I had 6 vowels for three rounds of the game!) and what seems to be a dumbing down of my vocabulary, I didn’t do so well. In fact, I’ve found that my ability to articulate things has become increasingly challenging as a result of cutting out all personal reading.
We’re approaching the end of our fiscal year at work which means that it’s time to renew and/or make changes to things such as healthcare plans, car insurance, 401Ks, etc. I attended a few meetings and events where they explained these policies and procedures in great detail. In one of the meetings I decided to take notes but then I stopped myself halfway through and determined to listen to what was said instead of writing it down, to see if I could remember all of the key information later on. I couldn’t. Understanding insurance policies is a challenge if you can read and write. It’s virtually impossible if you can’t read above a 12th grade level, which most Americans can’t. I got pretty angry thinking about the scores of individuals that simply would not be able to understand what their options were much less determine what the right decision for them and their family would be.
I have a pretty independent personality and as a result have a difficult time believing something just because someone tells me I should. I like to seek out facts for myself. To wrestle with every single facet of an issue. To determine where I land on something prior to asking those around me what their belief is. So, to have had something as monumental as healthcare reform up for the debate in The House while not being able to research all aspects of the bill for myself has been pretty maddening; I’ve had to rely upon the radio and TV and the information presented through both of those mediums tends to be brief and biased no matter what network you’re viewing.
Driving home on the highway one night I purposefully didn’t read a flashing, marquee that was trying to get my attention. 5 minutes later I had a pretty good guess as to what the sign had said (well, had I written it): “The 3 exits you can take to get home are closed. The three lane highway you’re on has been shut down to one lane. And, instead of getting home in the anticipated 10 minutes you will now be arriving at your final destination in 45 minutes.” Needless to say I was pretty annoyed. The whole thing could have been averted had I been able to read that sign.
Reflecting back on this week, I realize that my annoyances are pretty small in the grand scheme of things. Because in two week’s time I’ll be back to navigating life as normal, able to read, research and make decisions as I always have. But, there are so many that aren’t currently empowered with the skills necessary to make the decision they deem best for their families on important matters such as insurance and finances, that aren’t able to read important instructions such as those seen on a road sign and that have to take someone else’s word for it on key matters such a politics.
Literacy organizations across the country have been rallying for some time to raise awareness for illiteracy. Watch this video to learn a bit more about the impact this issue is currently having on every segment of our society:
If you’d like to add your voice to the issue, I’d encourage you to join the Declaration for the Right to Literacy Facebook page.
Yesterday was my birthday and I’m so glad that it fell on a Sunday so that I could enjoy all of the encouraging texts, e-mails and cards that were sent my way. Given the occasion, some of the messages were a bit personal and it struck me just how difficult it would be to have to ask a friend to read me what had been written. Some words are meant to be private, not shared yet there are so many adults that have no choice but to make such messages public. All of this begs the question, what would it be like to have a wordless birthday or other form of celebration?
I’m also realizing just how much I relish written words and cannot imagine going through life without the ability to read and re-read Scripture, poems, song lyrics or the things close friends and family had written. Such words have been like sustenance to me as I’ve navigated life’s ups and downs; there’s a certain validity that comes when words are inked out on a page so my heart goes out to those that are either unable or struggling to read. While such words may not resonate as deeply with others as they do me, I think there is some richness and depth that is missing when a life is lived without them as they can provide a reminder that we are loved, cherished and not alone in our journey.
I’ve been traveling since Friday, partly for work, partly for vacation. I decided to give myself a little slack when it comes to my reading fast as I knew I’d have to navigate an airport, a bus station, a train station and two new cities on my travels. It would have been virtually impossible to do those things without the ability to read at a high level. I cannot fathom just how frustrating it would be to be rendered virtually immobile due to a lack of reading skills.
I’ve been feeling very disconnected from my friends and family due to this fast, especially while on my trip. Sure, I can call friends but there is quite a bit I’ve missed out on when not checking Facebook, Twitter and texts regularly. There are important events, requests for prayer and updates that I’ve been completely unaware of. This has been very hard for me on a couple of levels. First, I like to be aware of what’s going on in the lives of those around me so its been hard to be disengaged. Secondly, while being affirmed by others is important to well being, I’ve realized that an unhealthy portion of my identity and self worth results from a Facebook comment, a retweet or an e-mail response. I seriously have been showing the signs of withdrawal that a smoker or alcoholic would experience when trying to kick a bad habit. Not good but I’m hoping that this whole process will purge some of my need for unhealthy affirmation
So, to be honest I’ve caved some this week, checking a few of the mediums that would be impossible to navigate if I operated at a low level of literacy. Tomorrow I plan to get back on track as I really do want to see this journey through to completion while seriously questioning that I have the ability to do so.
The first few days of this Lenten season have been eye opening, frustrating and telling. Some of the things I’ve observed and wrestled with have surprised me and I think this will continue to be the case over the course of the next several weeks.
Turns out, it’s quite difficult to ‘not’ read when it’s a skill that is inherent to your very being. In some of the moments I’ve caught myself reading things like a street sign or a billboard, I’ve had to stop and be thankful for the fact that reading truly is second nature and be mindful that this is not the case for many in this country and around the world.
On a more personal level I’ve realized just how independent I am and how difficult it is for me to be reliant upon others as a result. I had a hard time thid past week asking friends to help me read things such as menus and subtitles; I didn’t want to inconvenience them nor did I want to come across as needy (never mind that a lot of these friends were already well aware of the journey I’ve decided to embark upon for these next several weeks). Because of this pride I’ve yet to ask a stranger to help me read. In fact, as I’d think about various places I needed to go or things I needed to do this week I would decide to put those activities off until Sunday when I could read again. On a small level this is what it’s like to navigate the world as an adult learner; there are things you must put off until you have someone to help you. I know this because the students I tutor will bring bills, instruction manuals, homework and the like to our sessions that they’ve been stockpiling for some time. That being said, there are many adult learners that are too ashamed of their struggle to ask another for help. And, many that are willing to make the admission simply don’t have access to tutoring programs such as the one I’m involved in.
My experience at church this past Ash Wednesday was an interesting one. I hadn’t really intended to embark on this journey until after the service but my church had run out of bulletins so I had to engage in the time of worship without words on a page to guide me. The church tradition I’m a part of is a liturgical one so words abound in our services. The good new is that several parts of the liturgy are rote so if you are an adult learner you could memorize some of the portions of the service and engage verbally. The bad news is that if you are an adult learner and new to the liturgical tradition, attempts to read and engage with the liturgy would be completely overwhelming. My guess is that the liturgy used by my church and many others would be at about an 9th grade reading level, which is well beyond the reading level many posess. Given that many other denominations are centered around the written form of songs and readings, the challenges would be similar in their services. I’m not here to admonish churches for being so reader focused but my experience has brought to mind the following questions:
- How could churches accommodate adult learners so that they too could engage with the service and Scripture?
- Does the church (and do I) think that God can move and speak in the life of someone that can’t read? What does this look like? And, do I sometimes miss the move of God because I’m too busy dissecting the words of Scripture?
- I wonder if the reason that Jesus’ words tended towards parables instead of grandiose theological platitudes was so that the marginalized (those who can’t read, prisoners, those with disabilities, children etc.) could engage with him along with the academics and theologians? That is, it’s far easier to recount a story than it is to remember the 3 key bullet points from a sermon or the 5 points of Calvinism.
I’ll stop now as I think this is my lengthiest post to date! Part of that is probably stems from being wordless for several days but also from the fact that its been a long week(end) and I tend to ramble when I’m tired. Thank you all for giving voice to this issue and for wrestling with these questions along with me. It means so much to me and the people I’ve grown to care about.
The past several weeks I’ve really been thinking and praying about ways in which I can better empathize with my students and others who deal daily with the challenge of illiteracy. That is, what does it feel like to stare blankly at a restaurant menu? To be overwhelmed by the note that you child’s teacher has sent home from school? To not be able to read the author much less the title of the book that your friend just gave you? To realize, again, that you owe more taxes than you thought because you were unable to understand the form? To know that the debt your family is currently burdened with will only continue to grow because you’ll never have the skills necessary to apply for the promotion at work? To work constantly to cover up your struggle with reading so that you won’t be ‘found out’? To be unable to to surf the web? To be unable to read the brochure your doctor gave you to better understand the illness you’re battling? To have no choice but to take your pastor’s, politician’s or colleague’s word for it because you can’t seek out the truth on your own? To be part of a society that’s largely unaware of just how many people there are like you who struggle to read? The answers to these questions are of such scale and scope that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully grasp their magnitude. But, I want to try.
So, I’ve decided to give up reading and writing during the season of Lent(February 17-April 3). Monday-Saturday for the next several weeks I will not read or write barring that which is required to do my job and navigate any emergencies that might come my way. The list of things I’ll be unable to do during this time is a little long so I’ll share the list of the things I can do:
- read and write when tutoring my students
- receive and return phone calls
- drive to restaurants and locations I can get to by memory
- listen to audio books and audio Bibles
- watch TV and movies
Since I won’t be able to document my experiences in written form during the week, I’ll record my thoughts and observations verbally. Keeping with Lenten tradition, on Sundays I’ll be able to read and write so I plan to blog then about what occurred, the emotions I experienced, the challenges I faced, etc.
I have a group of incredible friends and family that are graciously supporting me in this endeavor by communicating with me differently over the next few weeks to accommodate my ‘illiteracy.’ The invitation stands for them to share their experiences here via a comment or as guest blogger as illiteracy isn’t a self-contained issue; it has an affect on you, those around you and the community at large.
While this endeavor will be far from perfect my hope is that all of this will make me more mindful and prayerful of those who are permanently in this situation, that the sharing of my experience will bring some tangibility and humanity to this issue and that compassion and community involvement will grow as a result.
About three years ago, I began to seek opportunities to get involved in some sort of community service in Nashville. Opportunity abounds in this town but I struggled for quite some time to find a cause that I could really put my weight behind. Passion cannot be manufactured nor should it be in the realm of community work. So, I waited for the right thing to come along.
I work for the international division of a publishing company so information and statistics regarding illiteracy often weave their way into my workday. Like many, I assumed that illiteracy wasn’t a major issue in the U.S. so data from developing countries was my focus. Until. Until I came across these facts outlined in the National Commission on Adult Literacy’s 2008 report, Reach Higher, AMERICA:
- Among the 30 OECD countries, the U.S. is the only nation where young adults are less educated than the previous generations.
- 2 million immigrants come the U.S. per year and 50% of them have low literacy skills.
- 88 million adults have at least one major educational barrier. The barriers are: no high school diploma, no college or English language needs. Without these skills it’s unlikely that you’ll earn a family sustaining wage; at least two years of post secondary education are often necessary to live above the poverty line.
- 56% of inmates have low literacy skills. 95% of them will return to our communities.
In sum, 91 million adults in the U.S. cannot read at a functional level. That is, nearly 30% of individuals over the age of 18 in this country cannot read at an 8th grade level or higher.
Knowing these statistics, coupled with conversations I’d had regarding the socioeconomic, familial, relational, spiritual and financial implications of illiteracy I knew that I had to do something to address the adult literacy needs in my city.
So, for a little over a year now I’ve been volunteering with the Nashville Adult Literacy Council, tutoring adults that are wanting to improve their skills in the areas of reading, writing and listening. Start Now, the specific program that I’m a part of, has allowed me to tutor a different student nearly every week.
The diversity of cultures, experiences, goals, dreams, challenges and triumphs I’ve encountered in my students have compelled me to continually look at every facet of this issue. The need to help these individuals is great and the resources available to them are scarce so I am passionate about activating individuals, companies, nonprofits, churches and the government to address this issue. Literacy is one of the most foundational elements to the empowerment of individuals and communities; without the eradication of illiteracy it’s unlikely the challenges faced in the areas of poverty, health & healthcare, teen pregnancy, fatherlessness, imprisonment, education, citizenship, drug addiction, our economy, apathy, injustice and the like will ever be removed.