A Better Idea

Picture of newsletter

Remember the 1990’s? Back then, I had a very part time position at the community college working as the Literacy Coordinator. I coordinated a volunteer program that matched volunteer tutors with adults who read below a sixth grade reading level. As the Literacy Coordinator, I wrote monthly newsletters and mailed them off to all the tutors. Here is the front page article I wrote for the January/February 1996 newsletter:

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February brings us cold weather, hearts and flowers, and President’s Day. A holiday when we remember 2 great Presidents of our Country – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I usually celebrate this holiday in two ways. First, I go out to the mailbox, open it, and say, “oh yeah” and then walk back to the house empty handed. Secondly, I tape up the Washington or Lincoln silhouette made by one of my children at school a few days earlier. But this year, I may think a little more about our Country’s founding fathers and the principles they lay down as sacred in our Constitution.

One of our country’s principles is that you are innocent until proven guilty. Another is the right to a speedy trial with a fair and impartial jury. And in the usual hustle and bustle of December (including my twin boys’ 7th birthday), I was called upon to enact these principles by serving as an alternate juror in a Murder One case.

A dealer had set up a crack house. Over several months, he built up a “clientele.” There were regulars who came daily and hung around the house socializing and smoking. One day while the dealer was away, his clientele decided to sell his t.v. so they could buy more crack. When the dealer returned, he was mad and blamed one man in particular. This man’s right to life, as specified in the Constitution, was brutally taken away – for a t.v.

This trial personalized for me the stories we hear every day on the news. Two drug dealers, smart enough to never use crack. Four people brought across the state from prison to testify, one had had a baby two weeks prior, one a convicted murderer, all of them crackheads. A prostitute. A planned drive by shooting. Two young children left alone all night while their mother goes for crack. A man who had everything he owned in a small duffel bag. A man who didn’t even own a duffel bag. A witness from prison, call out “Hi Mama” in a soft, gentle voice in the middle of her otherwise deadpan, monotone testimony. I saw the power of crack, of poverty, and of evil. I saw too many people whose human potential was wasted.

I also noticed something about one of the witnesses. When shown an enlarged diagram of a one room apartment, he couldn’t point out the front, the only, door. When asked to initial a certain paragraph, he sat motionless until the exact spot was pointed out to him on the paper. When given 2 one-page documents and asked to refer to a certain one, he shrugged. He didn’t know which one to pick up. I don’t know if the other jurors or if even the attorneys knew, but I knew: this man could not read.

Thomas Jefferson, another one of our great presidents, described jury duty as the single most important duty of a citizen in a democratic society. In addition, he believed in education for all citizens and that it was vital to a democracy. He believed that if you were given more, you had a responsibility to give more. Our country, with all its problems, desperately needs the ideas and ideals of Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln to be lived out by every day people in their every day lives. Literacy tutors do this in every single session.

No, I don’t think I’ll be making that trip out to the mailbox this President’s Day. This President’s Day, I have a better idea.

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18 comments

  1. Excellent article, Betty. You touched on something I’ve seen over and again as a teacher: the power of education. Young students who struggle academically often have parents who struggled as well. I once had a mother tell me—when I offered her daughter a speaking part in a school play— “My baby can’t read.” Her baby got the part, but they moved (yet again) before the program.
    Education is a big part of the answer, generational poverty is a big part of the problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read, Betty! It’s so tough to grasp that illiteracy still exists in North America, even though I know that it does. I had the opportunity to teach adults during the course of my nursing career. Although all of the adult learners I worked with were literate, many of them were from our northern communities and had parents who couldn’t read or write.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote this 25 years ago. It seems we still have the same challenges as back then. Individuals can make a huge difference in someone’s life , as I’m sure your work with adult learners did.
      Thanks for reading, and enjoy your day.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. When I first began to teach in the community college, I had a young man in my class who paid rapt attention, asked questions of interest, discussed the topics at such a level that I thought him deeply interested that he knew the material…and yet, never passed a single test. I called him in to discuss his final exam and how his performance did not match his level of participation and demonstrated knowledge in the class. I asked him some questions and listened as he accurately responded. I am not sure what made me ask him, “Can you read?” ‘No, ma’am.’ I gave him an exam orally, by simply reading the questions and then reading the choices in the multiple choice options. He made an A. It was the beginning of my desire to understand how we learn, or do not learn, and to be able sooner and better to help the students in my classes. After teaching college and university for 29 years, I was still trying to be a better educator, and still astonished at the number of college students who were not adequate readers. Reading literacy is essential. You go, Betty–make that better idea matter, whatever it is you are up to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • How sad for someone to be so intelligent and yet lack literacy skills. I imagine his self-esteem soared when he received his “A.” And I applaud you for trying to be a better educator even after 29 years. This article was written 25 years ago. I worked at the community college for 25+ years and saw it as a vocation. Going forward, I hope I’ll always be of service to others – in some way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post raises important questions. How many prisoners are illiterate? Are literacy and crime connected? How many people end up in jail because they can’t read? Is literacy connected with completing high school?
    I could go on and on. These problems exist in Canada, the US and the UK; perhaps in other countries. In another life, when I worked in children’s mental health and in child welfare, too many of the children we treated suffered undiagnosed learning disabilities. I’m sure that many of the examples you thought of in writing your post suffered similarly as children. Our societies have miles to go before the ideals of education and equality are realized.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Everything you mention – the correlation between prison and literacy, undiagnosed learning disabilities, completing high school – were common themes in my work as a Literacy Coordinator and later, as Director of Adult Education (program for those who did not graduate from high school.) This article was written 25 years ago! We still have a long way to go, and better education for all is one of the answers. FYI – I have tried to comment on your last two posts, but I continue to have issues. I tried a couple different ways, but I still get the same error message. If you see my “like”, at least you know I read it and tried to comment. Thanks for reading, and enjoy your day!

      Like

  5. An excellent post, and one that evoked a lot of emotions. Also a lot of thought. What can I do to correct the problem instead of just turning the other way? What challenges do those around me face that I choose to ignore because I don’t want to get involved? Thanks for making me think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are good things to think and to pray about. I remember you all did that service project for a church. I thought that was really neat. There are so many ways to be of service to others. One person really can make a difference. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a good day tomorrow.

      Like

  6. What a wonderful article and how sad that it is still true today. I remember working in a restaurant when I was 21. A man came in to apply for a job, but he couldn’t read or write so he couldn’t fill out the job application. I was so touched when my co-worker he was talking with said “no problem” and sat down with the gentleman to fill out the application. As someone whose life has been so enriched by books, it’s heartbreaking to know there are people who cannot read. Thanks fir the great reminder to be sensitive to others’ challenges.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your coworker was very kind. Yes, I couldn’t believe I wrote this 25 years ago. So many issues are still the same! I do believe education – and kindness – go a long way. Thanks for reading, and enjoy your day!

      Like

  7. I can not imagine not being able to read; sadly, there are too many who can’t. I served as the chair of the literacy committee for two years in a women’s political group and I enjoyed researching statistics and other information and sharing with the group.

    Liked by 1 person

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