Mere Words

An editorial
by Chris Hibbard
(originally written for http://www.lethbridgeliving.com, March 2011)

Mere Words

When I was a child, most of my best friends were fictional.

I realize how silly that sounds, but it’s true. I had friends named Encyclopedia Brown and Frank and Joe Hardy;, Wilbur the Pig and Curious George, even Max and his Motorcycle. These somewhat imaginary friends were always there for me at the end of the day, and they never cared about how I looked, who I hung around with or how much money I had. They never teased me about being “four-eyed” or pushed me on the playground. In fact, I still consider these friends to be some of the best I have ever known.

They taught me facts without forcing them on me. They showed me a life outside of Alberta, a world outside of Earth. Perhaps most importantly, they taught me that it’s okay to be different, to be special or weird – instilling tolerance and understanding in me in ways I could never hope to comprehend at the time.
Trust me, I know how ‘nerdy’ and awkward that comes across – but I’m okay with that. I’ve come to terms with the fact, over the course of my life since I was a boy, that I will never be the big heroic action star, or even any kind of incredible physical specimen. In many ways, and on many days, I am still that same young man with glasses, sitting alone a table somewhere, his nose happily buried in the pages of a book.

Now, I recognize there is some irony inherent when it comes to writing about literacy, which was my initial goal for this piece. If someone is illiterate, or not a fan of reading, they are certainly not about to dig into this – nor are they likely to visit this website for that matter. But I worry about literacy – about the future of our language and with it, the intellectual and mental health of our society.

We’ve got celebrities named Fiddy and Diddy who are role models for our children. We’ve got nightly headline news reports on who’s Tweeting who. We’ve substituted LOLs for real laughter and smiley face icons for actual body language. We listen to books on tape, read books on handheld devices – and some of us probably couldn’t find the fiction section in a library if we tried – provided we even know where the library is to begin with.

This blog you are reading was inspired by a conversation I had several months ago with my neighbor. She’s a beautiful, young, single mother who shall remain nameless. At the time, I was standing on my porch reading a paperback while having a cigarette. (They’re bad for me – I know.) She noticed me standing there and commented, “It seems like you’re always reading something Chris.” I could only reply: “That’s because I almost always am.” (I usually have two or three books on the go at one time.) In a rather off-the-cuff remark, she mentioned that she couldn’t remember the last time she had opened a book.

Now, this comment wouldn’t have lingered in my mind this long, were it not for her daughter – a cute little blonde thing who just turned six. Last summer I had made a neighborly gesture, lending these neighbours a compendium I have of classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes; a big fat thing full of pictures that I picked up years ago at a garage sale. When I inquired several months later as to whether they’d been enjoying it, their initial blank stares were followed by a somewhat embarassed admission that they’d never really opened it. They returned the book shortly after, and we’ve never discussed it since. However, it’s been bugging me a little bit from that day forward, knowing that there’s a little girl next door who is quite possibly missing out on the Three Little Pigs, on The Gingerbread Man and on Hansel & Gretel, because her mother simply doesn’t care much for reading.

For that is the cold hard truth isn’t it? If a parent doesn’t read – they won’t encourage their child to read. If the child doesn’t read, the adolescent most likely won’t either. If the adolescent doesn’t read – then neither will the adult, and when the adult has children of their own – the cycle just begins again.

I find the fact that I am witness to this cycle happening right next door as we speak to be quite unsettling. Being a single bachelor, it’s certainly not my place to suggest different parenting habits. Being a single man, it’s certainly not my place to be co-opting this little girl next door and suggesting she come to me for reading assistance. But being a big fan of words; of manipulating letters and sounds to bring thoughts to life – I surely wish I could help somehow. Because while most of us know what the word literacy means, we don’t often think about WHAT literacy means.

According to the United Nations organization UNESCO, literacy is defined as:

“the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.”

Now, I wish that an organization devoted to literacy could have come up with a description of literacy that a more illiterate person could understand. In my mind, literacy affects almost every action we do, almost every minute of the day. From reading instructions to assemble furniture, to reading ingredients on the side of a can, to understanding signage and directions which assist in acquiring new information. To put it simply, literacy is essential. It’s the foundation that is necessary for learning all other skills. Literacy is needed to be able to function effectively at school, at work, at home, online, in social settings, and out there in the community. Knowing how to read leads to knowing how to make informed decisions, to solve complicated problems, to think critically for yourself, and to plan and organize your life.

In June of 2000, Statistics Canada reported that almost 50 per cent of Canadian adults cannot work well with words and numbers. This StatsCan report broke literacy into three main categories:

    1. Prose literacy

: basic reading and writing of news stories or paragraphs

    2. Document literacy

: being able to interpret information from documents such as maps or tables

    3. Quantitative literacy

: the ability to extract and calculate based on numbers embedded in text – such as when balancing a chequebook

Three years later, a joint project was undertaken by the Government of Canada, the US National Center for Education Statistics, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Called the Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey, this project involved testing 23,000 Canadians on their literacy skills. The results? (And I quote…)

“42 per cent of Canadian adults have low prose literacy skills, with more than 20 per cent experiencing serious problems with reading and comprehension. This means they might have difficulty reading “continuous text” such as type found in books and newspaper articles.”

Difficulties such as these can have huge consequences down the road. Recent research has shown that 26 per cent of Canadians with low literacy skills are unemployed. When people with literacy problems DO find jobs, they tend to be paid more poorly than their more literate peers. More than 80 per cent of Canadians with low literacy skills are earning less than $27,000 a year. Related to this, the study found that many functionally illiterate people become dependent on public assistance and government welfare. Furthermore, a lack of literacy increases the likelihood that children will drop out of school and also increases the chances of leading to criminal behaviour and/or serious jail time. Yet perhaps the worst fact about literacy in Canada is that if children haven’t embraced reading and writing as fun and helpful by the time they are ten years of age – they probably never will.

Now I don’t know how much has changed since that survey was completed in 2003, but with a cell phone in every pocket, Facebook on every computer, semi-literate celebrities like Snookie and Paris gracing our magazine covers, and Charlie Sheen trumping news about Libya and Egypt, I’d be willing to wager that we ‘ain’t ‘bin gittin’ no smarta’.

This is why, when it comes to my neighbours – those pretty girls next door – I have a plan. They’ll most likely never know about my scheme, for since they don’t like to read, the chances of them venturing to this website to browse are slim. But I intend to be sneaky about it. At first, I might lend this mother/daughter duo another fable collection or two, simply to see if their interest in language has developed. I’ll continue reading outdoors, in plain sight. If either of these neighbours asks me what I’m doing, I’ll colourfully describe the plot and the characters while consciously expressing some enthusiasm and zeal for the title at hand. I might ‘accidentally’ leave a selected colourful paperback novel or comic book on the lawn this summer. I may even co-opt a stick of the little girl’s sidewalk chalk this spring, using it to sneakily write lines of poetry on our shared sidewalk. I intend to do everything I can to subversively, covertly, and inconspicuously instill in this young family a passion for reading – if only for one day. So wish me luck all you readers out there, as something tells me it may be an uphill battle. Thanks for reading.

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~ by Chris Hibbard on March 8, 2011.

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