Yesterday, I stopped by the bi-annual Friends of the Library book sale at the local fire department. It was my second pass over the books as mid-week they normally have out some different selections than on the first day as space is made available. This year it was less organized than usual. Books were faced in all sorts of different directions, authors weren’t grouped together (save the Nora Roberts section), and someone couldn’t tell their genres from a whole in the ground. Poor me, right?
While I was browsing through the gardening section for a book despite the fact I won’t be growing one this year, I heard an older woman speaking to one of the volunteers at the register. She was telling the woman that she was buying “Green Eggs and Ham” because she didn’t know how to read or write and was learning to do so. This woman had to be near 50. She went on to say, very loudly, that she had been in special education as a child but never “finished” and so didn’t qualify to get into certain literacy classes now because she didn’t even have the basics to do so.
She was so very proud of herself. She was learning to read and write. She was at a book sale buying a book she hoped to understand.
This moment left me feeling a mix of emotions about how we let children slide by in school without making sure they can read and write which is essential to everything we do. We need those abilities like we need breathing. I felt a little bad that I was just secretly complaining that my OCD was riled up by the volunteers lack of attention to setting up this book sale. Here was a woman who would have been elated to recognize that the books were out of order or filed incorrectly. At the very end of her conversation she told the volunteer that it was hard for her sometimes, she got embarrassed because she didn’t know what things meant and she couldn’t figure out how things worked without someone’s help. She was living a life of dependence and may always do so. She may never know the freedom of knowledge. She may never know the freedom of traveling to the imagination provided on the pages of books.
This morning I finished Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking” and realized that I too have spent a long hard fall and winter in the discontent of self-pity. I took my own imagination away. I made myself illiterate to reality and my own modes of expression. Today I feel more awake than I have in months.
I feel privileged to write these words on the screen. I feel honored to be able to pick up a book and find out something new about myself. Support literacy programs in your community. Start a book club at the local elementary school. Teach someone to read. It might change their life beyond anything they can express.