The Freedom of Literacy

It is hard to imagine our world without words. At almost every moment, we read and we write. We check the date on the milk to see if it’s about to go bad, we read the news, we read the homework assignments our daughter has written in her agenda book, we read texts, emails, Facebook, the electric bill when it comes in the mail (or in Honduras, when they tape it to your front door). But imagine if this world of words was a secret, a world that you didn’t belong to? That’s the best way I can imagine what it’s like to be illiterate, a reality for many of our Casita Copán mothers.

Though we may feel sorry for those who don’t belong to our world of words, there is still a negative stigma attached to illiteracy. A lot of people think it is a result of laziness or stupidity, which is far from the truth. The problem of literacy crosses international boundaries, and in all countries it is closely linked to poverty. In many countries illiteracy is much more prevalent in women and girls.

This is the case for many of our moms. One of our moms, Maria Antonia, only got to go to school for one day. She remembered the excitement of that first day of school, the thrill of walking into the school building with the other boys and girls, meeting her teacher, and sitting down to see what happened next. But what happened next was that times turned even tougher at home and her mother pulled her out of school, insisting that it was better for her in the long run to learn to clean. That way she could fulfill the path of her mother and her grandmother, neither of whom had attended school and didn’t understand the point – especially for a girl.

Primary school is mandatory now in Honduras, but there are still families that don’t send their children. And many of our moms, born only a generation ago, missed the opportunity to go to school at all. This means that many of them can’t read the labels on the food they buy, fill out a job application, or help their children with their homework. Some can’t even sign their own name.

Literacy is intimately connected with pride and independence. You hear a lot lately about the revolution of the internet, how it can connect people from all over the world and give voices to ordinary people who historically have been kept silent. This always makes me think of all of the people out there who will continue to be silent, even as the internet stretches into the most remote parts of the world. This includes the illiterate, a group who are not “stupid” but who have often been denied their basic right of access to education.

I think about how it must feel to a mother when her son comes home from 2nd grade and asks her to help him with his homework. Or when he brings home a permission slip for a field trip and she has to have her son read it and then forge her signature. When a new supermarket opens down the street but you must fill out a job application to be considered even for a job of just sweeping and stacking shelves.

Years ago, I taught remedial English in a middle school in Guyana. All of my students read significantly below grade level and nearly half were illiterate. Guyana is a country that still suffers from the remnants of a colonial system of rote instruction that teaches children to memorize words but doesn’t properly teach them to understand the words they’re writing. This type of instruction is most destructive during the crucial early years when children learn to read. I remember thinking about the intelligence it took for an illiterate child to memorize words, phrases, whole sentences – which in the mind of a child who can’t read are only a complicated arrangement of marks, a picture really. The shame didn’t belong to the child who couldn’t read, but to the system of education itself.

It was painfully challenging to teach my students to read because their feelings of failure and poor self-esteem were deeply connected to literacy. By this point in their education, most figured it was too late and they were already planning alternative futures that didn’t involve reading. These futures were mostly dangerous or impossible. Or in the case of the girls I taught, their imagined future centered on salvation through marriage.

Literacy has a direct correlation to opportunity. It is not a guarantee, but without it, the odds of success are nearly insurmountable. The best part from a development perspective? It is never too late. Yes, it is harder to teach adults than children, but it is far from impossible. Adults can learn to read and they can finally connect to a part of the world that has remained dark and confusing for their entire lives. Imagine how that could feel. The pride, the freedom, the possibility. It overwhelms me just to think about it.

At Casita Copán, we are already focused on the literacy development of our children. Our classes and tutoring for our school-age children focus significant attention on reading, and our preschool program is full of stories, songs, and nursery rhymes that help develop early reading skills. Plus we have lots of books at easy reach for the kids which has helped even our youngest kids learn vital skills such as how to hold a book, turn the pages, and respond to pictures and symbols.

Now we are turning our attention to our mothers. Our literacy program (evening classes twice a week) starts next week for all interested moms. We already have four moms signed up and we hope to sign up a few more at our mom’s meeting this Wednesday. Included in our class will be our own “Mami Juana,” a staff member beloved by all who never attended a day of school.

We can’t wait to get started! Thanks to a group of generous donors, we have our literacy program funded until the end of December. Please stay posted to see how our program develops by following the blog or by getting in touch with Emily at [email protected]