We are often asked when this film will be done. We've worked hard on it for a long time. There's much left to do. We promise that we're working on it everyday. Unfortunately, inspiration comes often. Yeah, that sounds funny, doesn't it? But, it's true. We continue to meet people who struggle to read just a little or who can't read at all. They keep us going. We want to tell all their stories. However, most simply don't want to tell their stories - yet - at least in front of a camera. They are not easy stories to tell. They involve years of suffering, years of struggle, years of hiding. Once in a while, though, someone we meet is at that point where they need to tell their story. They have to release it. They don't want anyone else to travel their journey. Those are the moments for which we sometimes have to wait. So, bear with us.
We hope this film does two things. First, we want to inform the American public about the scourge of illiteracy in the United States. It is very real. It is misunderstood. The late Dr. Maya Angelou recounted, "My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors." Illiteracy rarely results from a lack of intelligence. It is hardly ever caused by the person's lack of desire to read or effort to learn.
Second, we want to allow some who cannot read to tell their stories. Dr. Angelou noted, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." We hope this film allows our guests to ease the agony of their illiteracy just a little. We hope they're tellings will make us all a little less ignorant, a little more understanding, and somewhat more committed to helping those in need.
There were no caps or gowns. Pomp and circumstance wasn't played. No dignitary spoke of their accomplishments or how they might change the world. Still, there was a tinge of excitement in the air. There was a little more spring in their step. The smiles might have been slightly wider.
They gathered in the room they'd known for many months. The door from the hallway opens at one end. Two rectangular metal tables stand end-to-end along the center. They aren't quite the same width, but they are at least the same height. They leave just enough room for the ten or so plastic-backed, variously colored chairs. The room isn't cramped or uncomfortable, just snug.
The wall at the other end holds a Write Board across its width. Toward one corner stands a brown metal rolling cart of about four feet in height. On the top shelf sits a TV. It looks very heavy for such a small screen. Below, on another shelf, lies the VCR. It, too, looks pretty clunky. The wall opposite the door is filled with windows covered by slat blinds you might no longer be able to buy. The thin windows allow clear understanding of the occasional argument that hangs over from the liquor store a couple doors down. But, they also give the room a sense of space otherwise lacking.
The alphabet, both capital and small, line the wall opposite the windows. The map of the United States, a poster about dreams, a banner extolling the value of learning, and other inspirational and motivational placards better suggest the room's purpose. Of course, when they started here, these eight could not have said what any of those things meant. But, today is different. They can well recite that alphabet without looking. They can read the posters and understand what they mean. They have become the inspiration.
Why they couldn't read really doesn't matter. No doubt, their stories would intrigue. Her parents might have never sent her to school. Nope, not a single day. He might have gone to school only to end up in "special education" because he learns differently from others. But, he didn't end up learning much. Another might have actually graduated from high school despite not being able to read any more than a tale about Dick and Jane. This day is not about those stories.
Nor is this day to reflect on what sent them on this journey. They had each decided they were going to learn to read. Indeed, they might have decided many times that they were going to do it. Perhaps they could pin their decision to one moment. His daughter might have again begged him to read a story. Her daughter might have asked for help with homework. He might have again lessened the embarrassment by pretending simply to have not noticed the sign. She might have simply tired of trying to remember what each box looked like. Likely, though, it was a lifetime of such moments bottlenecked into that one which steeled their resolve. Whatever the reason, they were here now.
This day is devoted to what they have accomplished.They shared candy bars, New York style pizza, and a cake with "Congratulations" iced on top. The bars were small, the pizza cold, and the cake store bought. That didn't matter. It was a celebration. The real prize was sharing one final reading in class. They each read a paragraph or two. The selection was not easy to read. It wasn't meant to be. Rather, it was to remind them not just of how far they'd come but that they weren't finished.
The story was from a newspaper. Newspapers are intimidating. Each story has many small-typed words. A lot of those words are long. The stories aren't organized like a book. They aren't usually told in time order. The tense is different. There are a lot of facts. But, they each took a turn. They recognized many of the words. They attacked those they couldn't recall or had probably never before seen.
It wasn't about how fast they read. It was about the fact they could. No one wanted help, but everyone wanted to help. They'd helped each other for months. It was hard not to now. Naturally, part of wanting to help was to show that they knew, that they had figured it out. So, no feelings were hurt when three others said the word. But, as paragraphs were finished and the story began to tell, only the reader's voice was heard. This story was about them. Not literally, but pretty much. It was about a man who didn't learn to read until he was thirty-five. It was about the moment he'd resolved to learn. It was about how he pushed himself through the struggle.
"That's my story," she said.
The more important point, however, was that he didn't just learn to read. He then helped others. He kept working. Now he is on a school board. It got pretty quiet. They each received their graduation gifts. They weren't much, but they were everything. Small, light blue, faux leather journals with pages yet to be written. The covers were embossed, "Some people dream of success while others get up every morning and work hard at it." At one point they likely would not have dared to dream. Now they could. Their dreams might not yet be to run the schools. Probably, they were less grandiose. But, their lives had already changed in so many ways they never imagined. So, who knows?
The aim of this collection is not sympathy but empathy. These stories will better your understanding of the struggles faced by those who cannot read. You will almost certainly feel compassion for these seventeen. Yet, they speak not really for themselves but the millions of adults who were never taught to read. They speak to those millions who cannot even read these stories. What’s more, however, these stories will inspire people who might help these millions learn.