Life without literacy.

Reading and writing have always been as essential to me as love, laughter, oxygen and food. It is part and parcel of everyday life; I cannot imagine living without this ability. Life would be hell.

So when I discovered that a friend was illiterate, my stomach overturned. I asked her how she managed. Imagine a world where you have no idea what is written on the paper that you pull out of that envelope. On that packet. How can you live without this essential tool for communication?

My hedgehog book sits beside my bed. A meeting between a child and a novel creates beautiful things.

My hedgehog book sits beside my bed. A meeting between a child and a novel creates beautiful things.

The answer is dependence. That terrible state I never want to be in is her everyday situation. Her husband reads the notes from school to her, and her daughter reads the homework instructions out loud so that she can understand. Her daughter is sweet, understanding and fun. Like her mum. She reads for her mum. Her mother trusts her to tell her the truth. A delicate equation of trust and dependency between a mother and daughter that will continue for as long as they need each other, in a world where a child is the eyes of her parent, reading the news before passing it on. When she grows older, will she filter out the bad stuff, like we do as parents for our children before they know how to read? The necessary role reversal that had occurred so naturally shocked me.

But there is no firewall, nothing and no one to protect her if one day those helping hands suddenly disappeared. This dependence shocks me; how can illiteracy still exist in this day and age? The clock is ticking, and nothing has changed. Time that could be used to make things better is running through the hourglass.

I tried to motivate her. A simultaneous desire to hug her and shake her out of her lethargy and into action. Sign up for classes. You’re so young. Be independent. Rely on yourself. Be proud. Do it. Prove to yourself that you love yourself, and if you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the sake of your daughter. Please. Don’t rely on others for something so essential. Respect yourself. React. In this day and age, it is wrong to accept this kind of situation as a fatality.

I have suddenly realised that like so many other things in life, like love, health and happiness, things that I had always considered a basic staple of life are a privilege. That although we grew up in the same world, at the same time, she didn’t get the same chances as me. I have taken a real slap on the face. I am thankful for having parents who refused to let me let go, who cocooned me in a world full of books, literacy, library visits, who encouraged me and pushed me to never be dependent on anyone else. Education is a right. But it is also a privilege.

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18 thoughts on “Life without literacy.

  1. Hi Joanna
    The situation you describe is sadly not as rare as you might think. You write about it most movingly – and yes – it is horrendously difficult to persuade an illiterate that he/she does not have to stay that way and that there is a whole new world out there if only……….
    I sometimes hit my head against this wall in my engagements with prisoners for Storybook Dads. However, when an illiterate can be persuaded, wonderful things happen. Last year one of our successes eventually began to write poetry!

    • She promised me that she would give it some thought. She’s so young -too young to stay that way. Literacy is the way forward- I hope that more prisoners pull their fingers out with the support of people like Storybook Dads. For other bloggers, “Storybook Dads” is a fabulous association that maintains the crucial link between prisoners and their children through the recording of bedtime stories on CDs and DVDs. They are involved in the making of these supports, and this training helps them find work when they have finished their sentences. Check them out here: http://www.storybookdads.org.uk/

  2. I feel for your friend & understand your shock… I fear that as long as her husband & daughter ‘read’ for her she will never try to do it for herself but understand why they wouldn’t want to not do it for her. Maybe you’ll just have to keep plugging away at her until she finds the courage to take lessons 🙂

  3. I can’t imagine such a world where I couldn’t read either, but I remember in the 1970s there was a fantastic television series to help adults learn to read. Do you remember ‘On the Move’ with the theme tune by The Dooleys?

    “Life is an open book
    If you open your eyes and look”
    Send the link to your friend, it might help her make up her mind to start learning.

    • Thanks for that, Sarah! I didn’t know of this series: My only memories of TV as a child was Basil Brush, just after something boring about sports that seemed to last forever. My TV watching didn’t last long: the rental TV was shown the door shortly afterwards, when I was seven. It was never replaced. Now I want a propa cuppa coffee from a proppa coppa coffee pot 🙂

    • Society can only evolve the way we allow it to. (Sentence ending with a preposition there: I can feel the grammar gods frowning down on me…) I for one don’t want to live in a world like that. Living without literacy is a real handicap…. *Joan of Arc mode off* 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree more, MM. I simply cannot remember a time when I couldn’t read (my mother told me I taught myself at the age of 3 by asking what every word I saw said) and find it almost impossible to imagine not being able to do so. I can still remember the shock when I found out that despite running a successful dairy business a friend in his forties was functionally illiterate and relied on his wife to do all the paperwork. I do hope you can give your friend the courage to go to the classes.

    • It’s amazing how many people have missed out on something so essential in life; how can anyone go through school without the alarm bells ringing somewhere along the line? Fingers crossed, I hope she wakes up to the fact that she has the choice….

  5. I believe most like ly she is embarrassed to admit this to the world at large and maybe your calling is to gently teach her yourself? You are kind and highly literate. Perhaps this is your calling and will help another to open her wings? YOU may be her big step and with compassion you could make it fun for both of you and life changing for her….

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