The gift of reading

By K.L. Huntley
Reader Contributor

What seems like several eons and another planet ago, I worked in a men’s correctional facility — in short a prison. One of those great big acre cages, topped with accordion wire where we store other humans for a variety of reasons.

I hadn’t been employed there long when I discovered a tragic reality about our country and that was, its horribly high illiteracy rate. Too many of our inmates could not read or write, a stigma which a frightening number of the prisoners would hide. More than one individual would sit with a paper or magazine and slowly turn the pages creating the illusion that they were actually reading the material. Or they would request a one-on-one interview with me to explain their sentencing with the bottom line question, “When can I go home?”

Courtesy photo.

One of the teachers, yes we had a school, devised a way for these men to begin reading phonetically. It was brilliant. Tiny little stickers of tool pictures were painstakingly placed over a word corresponding with the sounds. A small image of an anvil over the words “and,” “an” and “animal.” This was pre-computers — late-’70s and early-’80s.

I became a volunteer who would take the reading material home and work after hours coordinating stickers of pliers over appropriate words. You can’t start these men out with children’s books. That would never work.

One day, while returning some of the completed material to the Education Department, an ebony inmate, the size of a football lineman, was sitting in the doorway with a book. There was no way around him. Truth be known, he scared me — I was a little white marshmallow country girl standing in front of a Black felon whose mere presence (in my ignorance) I found scary. 

Before I had a chance to react, his face opened like a child’s and he asked if I wanted to hear him read. Of course I did. I would have purchased anything illicit he offered or done anything asked. 

My unfounded fear jittered an affirmative nod while I stood frozen in position. The man began reading, his face glowing with pride and eyes twinkling as he struggled with each word, each sound, but by God, he was reading. My heart melted for both of us. This man, this grizzly bear of a man, was intent on self improvement and proud of each step forward. Improvement through literacy. He knew I had been a small part of his journey and was showing his appreciation. 

I learned that day that I carried a bag of preconception with me, and of prejudice about the individuals I was helping. I was enlightened and ashamed of my own ignorance.

Illiteracy is not to be confused with intelligence. Apparently there are eight types of intelligence. Literacy is how well you read, write and can do simple mathematics. It is estimated that between 54% of U.S. residents between the ages of 16 and 74 read below a sixth-grade level. Scarier still is roughly between 36 million and 43 million folks read below a third-grade level. 

Idaho is calculated to have about an 89% literacy rate. That means when you are standing in a supermarket line, sitting at a ballgame or watching your kid at the park, roughly one out of the 10 adults there are functionally illiterate. 

And where can these good people, who are now adults, go to get help? Their local library. The hangout for people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors. Books are free with a small, plastic library card. Even in a prison. Fiction is great, but the shelves are lined with creative thoughts and stimulating texts, videos and sound. Yes, you can check out music, too. You can stretch your imagination, feed your intellect and stimulate your brain — all for free. Embarrassed? The Bonner County library has a tutoring service.

It costs nothing to be literate, but the cost of illiteracy is staggering. The Read Ability Matters Organization has determined that it costs the U.S. about $2.2 trillion a year. I can’t count that high.

Children who are read to — even for 15 minutes a day — show remarkable progress over children who are not. That investment of 15 minutes out of a day can mean a lifetime of achievement and a gift that money literally can’t buy.

My mother, with a hint of a Scottish accent, frequently read to all her children, changing her voice with each character. She went on to give the gift of storytelling, reading aloud on a radio station specifically for the blind.

One statistic I found stated that the U.S. is ranked 36th globally in literacy, with the majority of literate countries being in Europe. Let’s join hands like a chain and pull ourselves up. Support bills promoting education, read to your children, turn off those beautiful electronic devices (including your televisions) and read, even if only for 15 minutes.

Statistically, the higher the literacy rate in an area the lower the crime rate. We should really think about that. If we want safe communities then we need to put an emphasis on education in our schools and continue supporting free libraries.

Eventually, fully realizing that literacy and education were the keys to improving our society, I changed careers from criminal law to education. And thanks to a felon the size of a linebacker and a few encouraging friends, I got a teaching credential and embarked on the happiest career yet: I became an elementary school teacher.

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