I believe in literacy, and because I believe in the power of literacy, I believe in an eight year old boy named Ryan. I tutor twice a week at a local Barnes and Noble, and Ryan came to me discouraged and disinterested. For two laborious nights we struggled through the program’s curriculum, mired in stories about donuts and raccoons. I cajoled and pleaded with him as I had the others, but it was only through an elementary piece about Everest that we accidentally discovered our salvation. The story concluded with a ridiculous statement about how good it feels to get to the top. Perplexed, Ryan commented that Everest had always seemed dangerous to him. I told him it was. I told him about Sir Edmund Hillary and Rob Hall, and that one in ten people who have climbed the mountain died. I told him all I could remember, sparing no gruesome detail and at the end he made me promise that everything I had told him was the absolute truth. I did.
It is a promise I have kept for months now as we read tucked in a corner of the children’s section among the stuffed dinosaurs and the sticker books. The curriculum long since abolished (a secret we have kept), we lay on our stomachs, heads bent over the stories of Colonel Patterson and the man-eating lions, Shackleton, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Titanic, and all manner of archeological expeditions.
It is funny to think of us in this setting. Among the silly books that play music and the bound volumes of childhood fantasy, we grapple with our feelings on life and death. We spend the evening with people who lived a hundred years ago perhaps, and we talk about morality, and the true meaning of courage. Along the way he looks up mid sentence to be reassured that these things actually happened.
‘Was that true?’ A year later, I still answer the question faithfully. Ryan does not live a life that allows him the luxury of fantasy. A child who has seen three divorces, who has watched a sibling die, and has called 911 for his alcoholic mother does not live in a world of talking animals. He lives in this world, and in this world he needs assurance that there is still good in it. He needs to believe that people have done important things, and that bravery is possible. Because if a simple engineer can take down savage lions, and if common men can save San Francisco that means Ryan has a chance too.
It is for this reason that I believe in literacy. I have watched it pull a small boy beyond his circumstance. I have watched it bring a mind to life. What Ryan is coming to realize is that he is on the cusp of his own story. And what I have always known is that for the child who is not afraid to read a book, anything is possible.