On Literacy and Hope

This post isn’t knitting related—but if you’re reading this blog you are a reader, so it definitely is in your sphere of interest.

My romance with books has been life-long. My mom tells stories of reading to me as an infant. Whatever the topic of the book, I’d scan each illustration for butterflies, even tiny little ones that were mere dots in the background. When I spotted one, I’d point at it, crowing “Bubber! Bubber!”

My first conscious experience of “great literature” was with The King, the Mice and the Cheese (sort of a forerunner of the “If you give a mouse a cookie” genre). Normally, I was content to check books out from the library—but the day my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Bonnell, read that book to us, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could explain to my mother why we needed to find our own copy of that book, why it needed to be ours.

As a teenager, I planned to name my children after characters in books I’d loved: Caroline Augusta (the heroine of Caddie Woodlawn), Merricat (from We Have Always Lived in the Castle), Linnet (from The Children of Green Knowe).

When I was in my early twenties, books were central to my impassioned political awakening. I read an array of feminist authors: Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Barbara Smith, Irena Klepfisz, Adrienne Rich, Judy Grahn. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States enraged and engaged me. Stephen Jay Gould made me think about the political uses of science. And Jonathan Kozol kept reminding me of the gift of reading and the crime of illiteracy.

I’m not at all surprised that I’ve wound up dedicating my life to books, to reading, and to writing. Education is, in a way, my faith. I am deeply convinced that literacy is essential to justice, to political change, to personal empowerment. We need to be able to experience lives beyond our own, to see landscapes we’ll never lay eyes on, to wrestle with wrongs that may never come to knock directly on our own doors.

If I had to choose one cause that matters most to me, I would unhesitatingly choose women’s literacy.

One of the greatest blots on America’s international record is our willingness to support governments that have systematically denied women literacy. Particularly in our historical dealings with Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have been quick to build relations of strategic convenience that condemn women to lives of subservience, marginalization, and ignorance. Recent data from the U.N. places young women’s literacy in Afghanistan at 18% and in Pakistan at 53%. Those are our tax dollars at work.

The good news is that as private citizens we can work to support female literacy in these countries and in other parts of the world. Developments in Literacy is building schools in Pakistan. Women for Afghan Women supports a number of programs in Afghanistan, including women’s literacy programs. For a broader impact, there’s the U.N.’s Girls’ Educational Initiative.

I know money is tight right now. We’re scared about our own futures and scaling back on holiday celebrations and gifts. But take a minute to think of the worlds—both fantastical and real—that books have opened up for you and see if you can’t give a little something to help that magic happen for girls around the globe—many of whom have been victims of our government’s own policies. A week without coffee could cover half a year of schooling for one of these girls. Melissa and I are looking at our daily expenses to see what we can come up with. We’d be delighted to have you join us. We’d also be glad to hear about other literacy programs. Do you have any favorites?

November 24 2008 11:20 am | Uncategorized

2 Responses to “On Literacy and Hope”

  1. ellen Strauss on 24 Nov 2008 at 6:33 pm #

    A areally inspirational story along these lines is Three Cups of Tea by Mortensen, which you sent a couple of years ago and I finally got around to reading. He is most proud of the schools he built for girls in Afghanistan.

  2. Sally Parmeter on 03 Dec 2008 at 8:42 pm #

    How about my favorite, Central Asia Institute? Absolutely read “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortensen.

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