This post originally appeared in 2007 on my old blog: Real Words for a Real Writer. It’s about my brief but memorable experience as a literacy volunteer.
When I was about eighteen, I signed up as a Literacy Volunteer of Tucson. My work with the group didn’t last long (what can I say, I was eighteen and not exactly committed to anything for very long periods of time). However, it left a lasting impression on my life.
Although I obviously knew that there were illiterate adults living around me, I hadn’t really understood until working with one what that meant on a daily basis. And I hadn’t understood until that time what importance writing and reading held for me.
My Experience as a Literacy Volunteer
The man that I worked with was older than I was. I believe he was in his thirties at the time, although I have trouble remembering for sure. I know that he was older and that I didn’t really feel confident in my ability to teach him anything, although I tried to project a false sense of confidence (working off that “fake it ’til you make it” plan that had gotten me through most doors).
He had two young children, and it had taken hard work for him to learn how to spell their names. He didn’t even know all of the sounds that the letters of the alphabet made, so putting them together into words seemed like an impossibility. This posed problems that the average adult doesn’t think about; the impossibility of filling out a job application, for example. Most of us fear that our resume isn’t good enough, not that we don’t know how to write our addresses on the application.
My student worked hard, meeting with me twice weekly until our meetings tapered off. Life happened, I suppose – he had another thing to do one week and then I had something come up on my end and we stopped connecting and stopped meeting. I don’t know what happened to him. But I know that he was progressing during the time that we worked together, our pens tracing letters on large lined paper in the empty conference room of some nearby library. And I hope that he continued to learn … but I’m fairly certain that I took away at least as much from the experience of being a literacy volunteer as he did.
Learning About Myself as a Literacy Volunteer
It wasn’t until meeting him that I realized that I read ALL of the time. I read signs as I walk or drive by them. I read the phrases on people’s T-shirts, the captions on image-based novels and the lyrics on CD jackets. Sure, I read blogs and newspapers, books and letters but it is the small moments of reading passing items that really tell me my place in the world.
And I can’t even begin to imagine what my life would be like without the ability to read those words. I can’t imagine living in a country in which every single phrase around me was written in symbols that didn’t mean anything to me; and I can’t imagine that country being my home. Ever since then, I have felt lucky that I am able to read and intensely aware of the fact that other people cannot.
The Ripple Effect of Life Experience
And there’s another point to this story: being a literacy volunteer literally changed my life. It took my experiences, informed them with something new and forever altered me. I didn’t do it for long and I haven’t done it since that time, but it is still a part of what makes up who I am. It’s a part of what I do every single day when I am writing for a living, creating a career that may affect many people but which will inevitably NOT affect a great many other people.
And the point there is that you can never know how the things that you will do will ripple out and affect other areas of life. I’ll never know how working with me did or didn’t affect that student; but I do know how it affected me in a way that I couldn’t have known when we first started working together. And that’s one of the many reasons that I think it’s important that we all step out of our comfort zones and do things that may change us. Because you simply can not know what comes next, but you can definitely make that first step and see what happens.
As I re-read this post in 2019, I think fondly of two people in my life who showed me even more how often I read the things around me. The first was an artist friend. We would go to museums together, and she pointed out that I was always reading the written descriptions of the art before actually looking at the art. It was true, then, and it’s still true now. But by pointing it out to me, she opened my awareness to it, so that now I sometimes realize I need to stop and just look around me. That I can interpret what I see without words to explain it.
The other more recent influence was an ex who is dyslexic. Of course, he can read, but it’s a struggle for him, despite that he’s brilliant. Noticing how challenging it was for him, and what limitations that places on him in this particular society, made me once again appreciate how easily reading and writing come to me. It’s a valuable skill in this society. It limits me sometimes, when I over-focus on words, but it is also my channel to the world around me. For that, I am grateful.