Thursday, January 24, 2013

on literacy

Maybe I was too literal when I was a child because I never could get on board with the the R's.  They were to be understood as Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, but I kept envisioning Reading and Riting, which made me wonder where spelling fit into our curriculum.

Here in Hong Kong I experience firsthand the limitations placed on a person who is uneducated.  I am illiterate; I can make out a few characters from memorization, much like an illiterate person learns to recognize certain words without being able to actually read them.  I have to ask SB or others for help.  At least Chinese people don't expect foreigners to know how to read characters so it isn't embarrassing to ask for help.

When I moved to Texas I had to retake the written portion of my driver's license exam.  I was the first person in the testing room to complete my exam so the examiner asked me to help out a woman who needed the exam to be read to her.  The woman was in her early thirties and had two young children in tow (who I hope are currently attending school).

It became very clear after the first few questions that this woman was not going to pass her exam.  I wondered if her inability to read meant that she also had no way to study for the exam.  She seemed to know what most traffic signs meant but she missed almost all of the questions pertaining to regulations such as the minimum requirement for insurance, or blood alcohol percentages for different charges.  I started placing a lot of emphasis on the correct answers when reading to her or asking her if she was certain of her answer when she chose incorrectly.  I knew that it was wrong but all I could think about was how limited she was, being unable to read, and how much worse it would be for her if she also could not drive herself to places that she needed to go.  Being without a car in a place like Texas places one at a huge socioeconomic disadvantage.

My attempts to gift her with answers were in vain.  She wasn't picking up on my cues and flunked the test in a spectacular fashion.  As I was waiting for my new license I saw her standing outside in the sweltering heat with her children, presumably waiting for someone to pick her up and drive her home.  Where I had been overjoyed to receive my very first license when I was a teenager, the experience picking up my Texas license was depressing.  I still think about that lady and hope that her life isn't as isolated as I imagine it must be.

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