D.E.A.R- Drop Everything and read: Celebrating International Literacy

While casually browsing my Twitter feed as part of my morning routine, I was reminded by a friend that yesterday, September 8th, was designated International Literacy day—a day devoted to calling attention to and promoting world literacy and literacy needs. According to Reading.org, “More than 780 million of the world’s adults (nearly two-thirds of whom are women) do not know how to read or write, and between 94 and 115 million children lack access to education.” As a writing and literature teacher, I find myself reflecting as I consider that statistic on how privileged I am in my own literacy and how honored I feel to count myself among those individuals who dedicate themselves to promoting literacy.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a home where, perhaps because both of my parents were and are still teachers, reading always seemed to take precedence over watching television, or even playing out of doors; always a firm believer in the simple idea that growing children need fresh air, if my mother couldn’t force me out of doors to play, she would at least encourage me to sit on the front porch with my book. When people ask me why I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature, I always share with them an anecdote I’m fond of relating: One day, when I was in the sixth grade, I was kept home from school with stomach flu and sent to Grandma’s house; sick or not, Grandma’s house was paradise; she had cable. Cable meant MTV. Just before dropping me off at Grandma’s on her way to work, Mom informed me sternly that I wasn’t to sit in front of the
TV all day. (Not that I’d planned to, or anything…perish the thought. What kind of twelve year-old did my mother think I was?). What then, I wondered, was I supposed to do? For answer, Mom handed me a cassette player and a stack of tapes rubber-banded together. It was an audiobook of Charlotte Bronte’s /Jane Eyre/. I’m still not entirely sure why or how my mother had this in her possession, but I’m almost certain that she’d been saving it for just such an emergency. Thinking their might be a quiz when she came to pick me up, I decided I’d read it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, as a visually impaired child, reading naturally held more appeal for me than watching television, playing dodge ball in the street, or riding my bike, not that I hadn’t engaged in such activities. Fond though I was of proving my ability to keep pace with my peers, one can only take so many scraped knees and broken glasses before admitting that there might be some truth to the paraphrased adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try again; then give up. There’s no point being a damn idiot about it.” Admittedly though, I hadn’t always adored reading—hardly surprising when I had to magnify words to such a ridiculously large size that I’m pretty sure Stevie Wonder could have read them from outer space. Needless to say, trying to read so slowly that I’d forgotten what the story was about before I’d gotten to the bottom of page 5 didn’t strike me as a particularly rewarding or entertaining pastime. It was bad enough that I came home from school with migraines that left me physically ill and bleary-eyed for days at a time. If I hadn’t been introduced to the wonder of braille and the magic of audiobooks, I might not have ever given it a chance.

It’s that passion for the world I learned to explore between the pages of books and the freedom to wander through that world on my own and make my own discoveries that I love sharing with my students. When we talk of my love for literature (and sometimes of their own as well, because college students sometimes read more than we instructors give them credit for even if they don’t perhaps gravitate toward the reading we assign them) a student will invariably ask me what my favorite book is. To an English teacher, asking that question is, I think, akin to asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I have so very many: the before-mentioned /Jane Eyre/, because it was the first “grownup” book I read; Jane Austen’s /Pride and Prejudice/, because as an adolescent, I identified with the fear and social degradation of being labeled a wallflower as the only girl no boy approached at school dances; the Ramona Quimbey series, because it kept me company on so many Saturday afternoons. Some books, like the ones above, I value primarily for sentimental reasons, though having taught and written about the Brontes and Austen in my professional endeavors, I’ve come to value them equally for their scholarly worth. Others, like Khaled Hosseini’s /The Kite Runner/, I love because they challenge me to step outside myself and view the world from an entirely different vantage point.

so in a gesture of acknowledgement of the incalculable worth of the written word, what are your favorite books? Can you recall a particular experience that turned you on to reading? Share your thoughts—and then, go celebrate International Literacy day—as Beverly Cleary so aptly puts it in /Ramona Quimbey Age 8/, drop everything and read!

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