If you can read well, you can learn anything by yourself. If you can learn, you can gain the skills for a better job. If you can learn new skills, you can change your life. If you can read a recipe, you can prepare a healthier meal for your family. If you can read the directions for connecting the VCR, call me! If you can read, you can interpret a contract to keep yourself from being cheated. If you can read, you can understand an official letter and most certainly a love letter. If you can read, you probably can write; and the more you read, the better you can write.
Reading skills are still, even in the computer age, the key to the quality of your life.
We all equate the poorest nations of the Earth, the images of starving children and barren wasteland, with illiteracy. Can we grasp the fact that this community is being severely effected by the same problem? Are we aware that the reading level of the average adult in the Virgin Islands is below sixth grade? Can we grasp the poverty figures that KidsCope published or the "years completed in school" from the Census reports? Do we really know the ultimate cost of having fourth graders whose average reading score is first grade? Do we know the price we pay for having a large population of adults who were unable to obtain an education past the sixth grade? Is it different because we hide our poverty and illiteracy behind solid walls, barely functioning cars and poorly paid service jobs and put on a good front for the tourists?
All of our lives depend on the literacy of all of our citizens. Incorrectly addressed mail, inaccurate bills, misspelled signs, limited vocabularies, misinformation spewed forth on talk radio, mistaken orders, slowness of official processes, underemployment and a poorly paid labor force, unskilled laborers that companies have to invest big bucks to train, and the importation of better-educated employees have an effect on everyone. We all suffer because so many people were betrayed by the educational process. Notice I don't say "system" — the process of education involves the whole community.
Yes, we all know many brilliant and successful graduates in our community. Yes, it is possible that the reading tests ask questions and use words that are not part of our culture. Yes, more parental involvement in children's lives would help. Denial always sounds the loudest when we can't face the facts, but we cannot deny that our children have limited materials and few, old or no books in their classrooms; that the school libraries are inadequate; and that the public library on St. Thomas is nearly inaccessible. We may conclude that the test results are imperfect, but we cannot pretend that our children are being provided what is necessary to gain the excellent skills they need to be successful in the 21st century.
We have to admit that we rarely see a child reading, that even less often do we see an adult reading to a child outside of the classroom; even more uncommon is to see an adult reading a book on the safari, at the beach, over lunch, in the park, or while waiting in offices and lines. A visitor from another planet would be shocked to know that the process of reading was denied many of our ancestors simply to keep them down and docile. Now, as if we liked that situation, we deny ourselves the opportunity.
I spent many days this summer reading to the children who came to the health clinic at Roy L. Schneider Hospital. It was one of the most pleasurable experiences I have had in many years. The Friends of the Library has a special project, funded by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, using volunteers to read to young children who are waiting at the clinic. Each volunteer has a bag of specially selected materials, and the goal is to develop pre-reading skills and early vocabulary to the "captive audience" in front of their families, who hopefully will be inspired to do the same.
The children were delightful, gorgeous (are there no ugly children on this island?), bright eyed, quick and so eager to be read to, to explore the wonderful books by themselves and to do the puzzles. After a few weeks, they began to "look" for the volunteers — one little girl said she had "been waiting for hours" for me to come. Another day, a very small boy whispered in my ear that he loved me. I watched perfect strangers helping children with puzzles or difficult words. On a particularly busy day, I left a whole chorus of children and adults counting to 200 as my time finished. What's not to like about spending 90 minutes in such activity?
I believe that every adult in this community has a responsibility to the children of the community. As the parental generation, we must see every child as our child. To ignore the state of our children is to ignore the quality of all of our lives. What could be more important for the future than that we raise happy, empowered children? A little bit of your investment will reap mucho benefits, possibly for you, too.
Each of us has the power to make a major difference in the life of a child. If you can read to a child for one hour a week, call me to help at the clinic, call a library, call a school, ask a neighbor with young child. If we could each do this, we would be teaching children how to learn for themselves, think for themselves and make decisions for themselves. You will be giving them self confidence and a better self image because you've shown a caring spirit. You'll be introducing them to worlds beyond their own so they can dream and plan and follow positive role models. A little invested action can make changes that will pay big dividends in the quality of all of our lives.
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