I believe that to be literate is to be aware of the weight words carry
When I was a child, my favorite place to go with my mother was to the downtown library where I would join other little kids for story hour. After story hour I would search the bookshelves for books with colorful pictures, pictures I could then use to create my own stories. When my mother and I arrived home, I would line up my stuffed animals, porcelain dolls, and Twilight, my parakeet, in the sun porch where I would create my own stories, sometimes using the same book over and over again; the same pictures, different interpretation.
During the evening when my mother and father were preparing dinner, I would sit in the corner of the kitchen with a tape recorder and make up stories. I still have tapes of these stories, my voice with its “English accent”—my sister’s friends often asked if I came from England or some place overseas—introducing a story: “This is a stowy by Elizabeth Wellew! You can wead along if you like or just wepeat the wods after me.”
As I learned to read and write, I began to write stories down. My first story was about a dog that escaped from the pound. Then as I began to read stories in school and my imagination expanded to included new worlds and other experiences, I wrote stories of children finding other lands (one a land of weeping willows, another, an eternal city at the bottom of a lake), lands that would save them from the difficult worlds in which they lived.
For me, literacy opened doors of awareness and nourished my curiosity about other people’s lives. I wanted to know how other people thought and how they felt. Where did they live? What were their lives like? Reading became an experience of entering into the secret lives of the people I passed in school and on the street, the people I saw from the windows of my family’s station wagon and the adults in my life who didn’t make much sense to me. I’ll never forget a line in a book Mrs. Dennis, my fourth grade teacher, read to us. It was a story about a boy who runs away from home. As he is walking through the country side, a woman stops to see if he needs help. The author writes, “The boy knows the woman is kind because of the wrinkles around her eyes. These are the kind of wrinkles that mean she smiles a lot.” I went home from school that day and looked intently at my parent’s faces. My dad had smile wrinkles around his eyes.
I have learned over the years that the more I understand language, i.e. the more I am able to give meaning to words in context, the more I am able to understand myself and the world. Without words grounded in the cultural use of language, I would be lost. But more importantly, I think it is necessary to understand that language is in action. Thus, to be literate is to be aware of the weight words carry. It requires a certain responsibility for speech and an awareness of our ever-changing, growing voices—how they come together, where they drift apart.
Just as I continue to look for smile wrinkles around people’s eyes, I struggle with various assumptions I have, about myself and about others, assumptions that inhibit the depth of my understanding. Where do these assumptions come from? And why do I hold so tightly onto words that I simultaneously struggle against? Could this be a form of illiteracy, using the term broadly? When do people learn to believe that all homeless people are lazy or that black people have inferior intellects? Where do my own assumptions of class come from? Where did I learn that education comes only in one form? How do we challenge these assumptions in lasting ways? What does it take to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to an inward shift in thought, a shift in being?
Reshad Feild writes, “You and I, all of mankind, are connected by an invisible thread. So you see, whatever is said or done in one place has an effect everywhere else in the world. But the degree of that effect is dependent on our degree of awareness.” For me, this quotation captures the relationship between language and literacy. As human beings, we have the capacity to use language as a means to expand our consciousness. Literacy then, is more then recognizing words on a piece of paper. Literacy is also the awareness that we are responsible for the effect of our words and thus our actions.
I have found that reading novels, listening to poetry, and writing, encourage empathy, humility and curiosity. However, this is a path that I have chosen. I read and write because these are forms that I love. Over the years I have met people who have challenged my assumption that literacy is confined to the written word (and therefore everyone must love to read and write!). My friend Jenny rarely reads but when she tells a story, she paints images as clear and beautiful as poetry. My husband, Bill, also a good story-teller, communicates with the world through the work he does with his hands. There are many ways of speaking, ways of “being literature,” that I often fail to notice or to appreciate. As I learn to speak languages other than my own (figuratively speaking), I believe that my relationship to the written word will take on new forms of life.
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