Freedom of the Written Word

DawnI’ve always been a reader.

Ever since I was able to ride my bike by myself, I would go to the Scott County Library and check out books almost every day. My dad used to take me to the library regularly, and I was always one of the best “summer reading program” participants.  Anna Mae Walsh, the librarian, knew me from a very young age. She chatted with me regularly about reading, about books I might like. She was kind yet stern, and I wanted to be her. By age nine, I would take home three or four full-length novels, most of the time finishing all but one, and then return them to the library on my next trip, two days later. I’d read the stuff that was appropriate to my age, but after a while I started venturing into more advanced fiction. Anna Mae questioned my choices of Stephen King and V.C. Andrews; she wasn’t sure that a nine year old should be reading about such adult subject matters. She even asked me if my parents approved, in the way a teacher asks a student if she can handle challenging work. She knew I could; she knew I could read like the wind. She didn’t know I would leave the books outside my room at night so I could sleep- they scared the daylights out of me- but I kept checking them out. Pet Sematary was so scary, so real, so frightening that I didn’t sleep the night I finished it. My parents didn’t give me explicit freedom to stay up late, and they knew I was scared, but they didn’t admonish me for it. They knew that my habit was a gift, something that not many people in my family had- a love of reading. I was a homebody in the summers before I could work, so I spent a lot of my summers just reading, and I got pretty good at it. I never gave it a thought- of course I could read, and I did it because I loved it. No one told me I couldn’t read – the world of literature was endless for an ambitious reader like me.

Fast forward to my adult years, long after Anna Mae passed away. As I grew older, I began my traveling experiences to developing countries, working in educational forums. My first trip abroad was to China, where, for the first time, I was unable to read. Literature was inaccessible of course, because the books in the libraries and stores were in Chinese. Everywhere I looked, there were papers and magazines and signs with beautiful Chinese characters- that I couldn’t read. I learned quickly that reading for me was a reality base while I was in a place very much out of my comfort zone. I read whatever I could get my hands on, desperate to connect to my native tongue. Sometimes I found Harlequin romances lying around the campus, sometimes I found a People magazine left behind by a volunteer. My choices were severely restricted by language and by subject matter- the Chinese communist government only allowed certain materials to be sold in bookstores and newsstands. My students sensed my desperation and brought me to bookstores where they knew there would be legitimate English books. One of my classes even bought me a set of famous Chinese novels translated into English; it was such a caretaking gesture that I was almost moved to tears. It was exhausting to always be speaking English in a teaching capacity, so I read to keep my vocabulary limber. Even so, when I returned to the United States, I found that my way of speaking had been simplified, and temporarily I was unable to use many multi-syllabic words or contractions. I am certain that the minimal English I was able to read helped me to practice what I had worked for my entire life to develop. Although I was prevented from stretching my reading legs in unknown texts, the written word had at least retained my skill.

About 6 summers ago, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) selected me to be a part of the Frontiers of Justice program, where five other teachers and I traveled to India to learn about the programs CRS had in progress. The focus of many of the programs was women’s empowerment, so women were taking the lead in their communities to solve some of the problems relating to money lending, education, and health. In the Dumka district in the Indian state of Jharkand, CRS is executing a program that teaches women to read and write in their native Santhal language in approximately four to six weeks. My background as an English teacher caused me to be curious, and I viewed this endeavor very differently than my Religion teacher companions. What would it be like to be completely illiterate? I had never taken the time to whittle it down to something so simple. My world would be quite a bit smaller without my entitled skill of reading. My livelihood is my ability to interpret literature and to guide developing writers and readers; I was acutely aware of how valuable this skill and learning was. In fact, I would not have been able to apply to CRS’ program had I not been able to read or write. I was excited to learn of the impact literacy had in this tiny slice of the world.

When we met with women at a particular village called Asanbani, we learned the immeasurable value of their newly found freedom. Through a translator, we asked the women what it felt like to learn how to read and write. Several women responded: “Money lenders cannot cheat us now,” “My husband can no longer enslave me,” and “I know now that there is so much more to learn- the world has opened up to me.” We could not begin to speculate about the trials these women had endured during their education. For them, the precious freedom to read was truly the freedom to live, and they had persevered. Our translator challenged, “How do we know you can read?” All of the teachers were embarrassed, and felt that he was being disrespectful. We didn’t need proof- we heard the answers, we saw honesty and strength in their eyes. But one older woman rose to her bare feet in the humid, dusty room, stood amongst her female counterparts, and in Santhal calmly replied, “Give me a book and I will show you.” When a third grader reads out loud, she sounds out words as the piece is slowly read. This woman took the primer and read- slowly but surely, and with a shy confidence. We were in awe—she was simply reading, and in that moment we recognized that her life was forever changed by learning this skill. She continued, and suddenly another woman stood to read. More women volunteered to read, and we saw five women sound their way through the primer. If we had stayed for another three hours, I am confident that every woman in the room would have risen to her feet and read. Although there was generous applause for the readers from us and the other women, we were amazed, reflective, and reverent. We were truly in the presence of greatness.

So many times throughout my life, I have been unconstrained with my skill of literacy, along with my education, my job, and the circumstances that have brought me to the place I am today. On the other side of the world, women just like me have lived completely different lives, but have just recently been given this beautiful gift of literacy to free their minds and worlds. Watching those women, who could have been me under other circumstances, brought me to an important conclusion. The simple skill of knowing how to read makes a world of difference to many people we will never meet in our lives; it’s a survival skill. Once, I was a kid riding my bike to and from the library all summer, and now I teach students how to be strong readers so they can be active contributors to our society. The Indian woman was once oppressed, and now she can model literacy for her daughters and sons so that they can have a better life. I believe that literacy is an essential freedom that will continue to empower people everywhere. I am fostering that freedom when I teach my students and continue to utilize literacy, and I celebrated freedom in the presence of the recently literate Indian woman who will help to change the future of her world.
Go read something – because you can!

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