Education, and thus literacy, allows us to participate in society. It makes all the difference in being able to reach down on any given day, and find your boot straps to pull yourself up.
Literacy continues to be an issue in the US. Even in 2019, a study by the National Center for Education found that 21% of people had ‘low literacy’. Able to read just a little, and comprehend simple concepts, directions or street signs. Another 4% were considered functionally illiterate, where they had memorized symbols or shapes to get by. Another 4% were deemed so illiterate as to be unable to participate in society. Of the 79% of people in the US who are classified at literate, nearly 54% are functioning at below a 6th grade level. That is shocking in the richest country in the world.
But one thing that those struggling with illiteracy have, that I continue to struggle with, is the ability to communicate verbally. Jeff and I were just discussing this. Speaking in Spanish. It plagues me. But while I am functionally illiterate in Spain, Jeff is actually illiterate. He spends all his time five days a week speaking english on video and conference calls with people in the US. This means that on weekends I am his guide into the world of anything we need to get done. But, I am just a few rungs on the lingo ladder above him. I can read a newspaper and tease out the gist. But I don’t have all the words and am always missing some crucial detail that changes the meaning, sometimes significantly. So frustrating.
When I was growing up, my parents owned a grocery store in one of the poorest areas in the city. We lived world away, clear on the other side of town. Going to work at the store in summers and weekends was like traveling to another planet. The six blocks surrounding the store were crime-filled drug havens. Gang wars were fought in our store parking lot. The police would come to the counter and bring books of mug shots when there was a bank robbery or other serious crime. They said that those six square blocks had more ex cons (convicted felons) that in 3 states. And we knew most of those guys.
‘Oh yeah. That’s Shorty. He works for the carnival. He lives on 71st street. Near the Precision.’ And the police would go pick him up.
Shorty, or Stu, or one of the Mikes with the face tattoo – they all knew my parents. And they knew that if they stepped out of line when they came into the store they would be booted out. The No Weapons in the Store sign hung right as you walked in the door. My Mom would point to it and shake her head if someone came in with a baseball bat or a gun she could see. So they didn’t. They respected my parents. My Mom was robbed at gunpoint once. The robber put the gun to her head as she stood over the floor safe. The guys in the neighborhood found out and they came in to reassure my Mom. ‘We’ll find him. He can’t be from around here. None of us would do it.’ But they also knew that we wouldn’t lie for them if they stood accused of a crime that they had likely committed. As a little girl, I wasn’t afraid of these guys. And I learned a lot about people from them. And how they ended up living the life they were living.
It’s easy to look at convicts, drug addicts, and prostitutes, and to lump them all together with a blanket statement of we all have a choice. But because I worked in my parent’s store in that area from the time I was 11 years old, I knew early on that not everyone has the same choices. Sure, no one has to do drugs. But despair is something I saw every day in that area, even on drug addicts that were clearly high as a kite. And I learned it’s like a cloak that becomes part of the wearers skin and they can never take it off. Most have worn it for so long they no longer know it’s there. A part of who they are. Some of those people were very smart. But they came from abusive homes or grew up with drugs on every corner. And the one thing that so many of them had in common was that they were illiterate. If you can’t read or write, even your own boot straps feel very, very far away. You can’t bend down far enough to begin to give them a tug, let alone a hard pull.
My brother, Todd, and I would try to help some of the children in the neighborhood. When the kids would come in and I was working the register at 12 or 13 years old, they would come up to the counter with a handful of penny candy. I would say ‘Help me count it cause I’m having trouble.’ We would count it together. ‘One-Two…’ then I would wait and see if they could do the rest. If they couldn’t, I would begin again. ‘Oh no. I lost count. We have to start over.’ We taught the children of drug addicts, and prostitutes, and convicts their numbers and simple math. And how to read candy wrappers and packs of cigarettes. That sounds crazy, I know, but you use the tools you have. A few of them eventually graduated high school. The first in their families. Others went to prison or worked the streets, just like their parents. But they could count their money, ill gotten or not.
When Jeff and I first fostered our daughter, Emilie, I remember seeing that same cloak. She had been through so much, and even at four years old she wore the weight of it. Jeff had not seen what I had seen as a kid. He had grown up in Bellevue, Washington, now one of the wealthiest cities in America. But even Jeff said he could see it. I think it was probably three or four years before the cloak that Emilie carried was gone for good.
Today, I know that Jeff and I are nowhere near to living in the conditions of the people I knew 40 years ago, down by our store. We have blessings that should be counted every day. But these days, when I struggle with my Spanish, to understand and be understood, fumbling with my numbers sometimes or how to ask for what I need, I remember back to that time in my life and I have even more compassion for the people I knew then. And that’s the moment I dig in deeper and try a little bit harder in my Spanish lessons. Because of a good education, unlike so many, my particular set of boot straps has never been out of my reach.