When the young woman came into my bookstore yesterday, I greeted her, and knowing it was her first time in the store, asked what kind of books she liked. “Journals,” she said.
Assuming that she was looking for a book she could write a journal in, I answered, “We only sell old books…I tell people a new book in our store is about my age, and I’ll be 50 in July!”
She laughed, and explained that she was actually looking for stories from other people’s journals…now we were getting somewhere!
I checked our database, and made some suggestions. As I showed them to her, she revealed a stunning fact to me: she loved books, but had a lot of difficulty with reading, writing, and spelling.
As she told me her story, I choked back tears: she was dyslexic as a child, and no one in the school system caught it. She was also left-handed, and the teachers used to try to make her use her right hand (and actually punished her for using her left one!). She never told her parents what was happening. She talked about having trouble with a job she’d had at WalMart where she had to match barcodes to items…she couldn’t do it! It hurt to hear her describe herself as “lazy.”
The woman then pulled a laminated placemat out of her bag and showed it to me…it had the alphabet on it, with dotted lines and arrows showing how to trace over them…I’d bought similar mats for my children when they were learning to print at age 3 or so. I was almost speechless…this woman was about 30!
She expressed an interest in history: “I wonder if Cleopatra ever wrote about her life?” Pointing to Samuel Pepys’ Diary, she asked who he was: “I see this book a lot.” I told her the limited amount I knew about Pepys. The woman also liked royalty, referring to Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth. “I looked all over Coles for a biography of the Queen, and they didn’t have it!” she said.
I spent the next half hour scanning the shelves, looking for books which would be relatively easy to read, and interesting but not too juvenile. It was tough! She was enthusiastic about the thick boys’ historical fiction books I showed her by G.A. Henty: “Now that’s a book,” she’d say, hefting them in her hand. She liked the colourful bindings too.
Eventually, she settled on Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse: it was historical (the true story of a daring escape from a German prison camp during World War II) and written in fairly straightforward short words. I mentioned that I’d seen the movie when I was a kid, and never forgotten it. We also had the followup book, The Tunnel. As she was paying for the book, I asked if she was getting help with improving her literacy.
“No,” she answered. I urged her to go to the Saint John Learning Exchange, which is right around the corner from our store, and provides free literacy training. I have a couple of friends who work there.
“It’s free, they’re really nice, and they will help you,” I said emphatically. The woman thanked me as she left. I hope she goes to see them. Sadly, she is one of many people who have literacy issues in our country.
After she was gone, I couldn’t stop thinking about the things I wouldn’t have in my life if I couldn’t read and write: my children (I met Kaylee and Anna’s father in college while studying Broadcast Journalism, and Hope’s father while ghostwriting a book for him and another guy); Jim (we met on Plenty of Fish three years ago); the bookstore I co-own with my dad; the Book Club I belong to; and this blog, which has been one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had! I think of the thousands of books I’ve read over nearly 50 years, and all the things I’ve learned from them! I would be a totally different person if I hadn’t learned to read and write!
How would your life have been different if you hadn’t learned to read?