A few weeks ago, I had dinner with my friend Patrick, who is also a librarian. We were catching up about our summer activities and plans for the school year, and in the course of the conversation, he asked about my mother. She's a teacher in Arizona, where they start back to school in mid-August (so much earlier than the NYC kids, who are just getting back today!) so I shared some funny stories she had been telling me about her first few weeks of first grade. If you're at all familiar with the comically literal tendencies of Amelia Bedelia, just multiply that by 25 and that seems to be the situation for the first month in a first grade classroom.
They spend most of the time, during the first few weeks, practicing how to be in school, learning classroom procedures, and building up the endurance to actually make it through the entire day. (It's an awfully long day, when you're 6.) Then they get down to business—and for the rest of the year, it's all about reading. Oh sure, there's math (word problems = reading!) and science and social studies and computers and gym and art. But in first grade, reading is the main event. In the course of her career, my mother has taught every grade between K-6, spending most of her years in kindergarten. But once she got a taste of first grade, she's never wanted to teach any other grade. It's just so amazing, she says, to see the transformation as someone learns to read—the lives of these kids are changed forever.
As I was sharing all this with Patrick, he stopped me, and we took some time to reflect on what a huge change it really is. If asked, I think most people would name a high school or college teacher as the one who changed their life, the teacher that really made a difference. By then, we are old enough to understand and recognize how these teachers have helped us. If I'm being honest, though, I have to admit I barely remember my grade school teachers, and first grade is the most distant memory of all. I surveyed my friends, and found a few who really struggled when learning to read distinctly remembered the teacher who made that difference in their lives. Too many of us, it seems, take our ability to read and the people who helped us to learn how for granted, because we simply were too young to realize what a massive paradigm shift was occurring in our teeny little brains.
But honestly, whoa. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you weren't able to read? It's too impossible to even fathom. Yet this is the reality for nearly 800 million adults worldwide. According to UNESCO, 1 in 5 adults is still not literate, 2/3 of those adults are women, and over 67 million children are out of school.
Today is International Literacy Day. Every year since 1966, September 8th serves as a reminder of the importance of literacy and a call to action. This year, the UN is focused on literacy and women's empowerment. The nonprofit organization Room to Read, which builds schools and libraries in rural communities around the world, is working to publish a new book for the children of South Africa. You can tweet for literacy, or support the cause on facebook.
Here at NYPL, every day is Literacy Day! Our Centers for Reading and Writing help adults who have difficulties reading and writing improve their communication skills, and we're always looking for volunteer Literacy Tutors. We offer many programs and classes, from Baby Lapsit storytime to ESOL classes, to build and improve literacy at every age and stage. And we're working to get more books on the shelves with our 2010 Friends Fall Book Campaign.
However you choose to celebrate International Literacy Day, I hope you'll take a moment to consider what a gift it is to be able to read. In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, "The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."