A secret shame
Today illiteracy sits across a table from me in the form of a 75 year old man. It unexpectedly leaps in my face and squeezes my heart tight. An old man’s eyes are watering and his face is contorting with pain as he admits his intense shame at his illiteracy. He’s talking about how it continues to limit every aspect of his life.
I had known he was illiterate. But I hadn’t really understood the impact.
He’s talking about being lonely. Painfully lonely. “I wasn’t made to live alone.”
I say, “At your age, there are many unattached women for each man. I’d think you would be quite a catch. I don’t think you need to lack companionship.”
He is a fine looking gentleman and has a lot going for him. His home is immaculate. He’s a great cook. He has a good sense of humour, is generous, and handles his money well.
So why is he so lonely?
“What kind of woman would want a man who can’t even read or write?”
My friend’s illiteracy limits his life today in other ways, too.
Bowling is his only social activity. His bowling team wants him as captain. He knows he is good and that he could do the job.
But he also knows he wouldn’t be able to keep score. So he refuses.
“I’m a dummy”
There are many closets in life. One of them is illiteracy. It’s a devastating secret shame.
Illiteracy creates an intense sense of low self-esteem.
It’s impossible to live in our society without being able to read or write. So people develop coping strategies, expecting at any moment to be exposed for the dummies they believe themselves to be.
“I’m just a dummy,” he says sadly.
Shamed by those who are supposed to help
Years ago, he gathered up the courage to ask for help from a literacy program.
His tutor was to meet with him one-on-one. Once a week, he sat in her kitchen to learn how to read.
During the tutoring, her 10 year old daughter would go in and out of the kitchen, talking with her mother. This kid would look at my friend, a grown man, and know why he was there. Her husband came in and out, talking to her, disrespecting the student whose time he was interrupting. He, too, knew why the man was there.
For three weeks, this man went for tutoring and endured shame upon shame, humiliation upon humiliation. Every time he went, he was reminded that even this young girl could read, but he couldn’t.
So he quit. And he never tried again.
The continuing production of illiteracy in poor areas
Two years ago, I volunteered with an after-school homework program at a local youth centre in a disadvantages community. For the first hour, I helped 25 children ages 5 to 12 with their homework. I helped another 25 during the second hour.
Virtually none of the children could read. Nor were they able to do basic addition.
That was the first time illiteracy smacked me in the face. I felt powerless.
No real tutoring could happen in one hour with 25 kids. And no other resources were available. I was told that the schools are doing the best they can, but the resources are lacking. I wondered, what is the future of these children?
Today I saw the future in the face of a 75 year old man.
If you’re looking for a way to help, volunteer to be a literacy tutor. But for God’s sake, don’t do it in the presence of your children or other family members. This person has taken a hugely courageous step in asking for help. Please treat them with the greatest respect. You could look for an organization near you and educate yourself. I know this is an area I myself want to learn a lot more about.