brown wooden framed candle holder on top of books

I remember it like yesterday. After working full-time for years while freelancing and contributing motivational, lifestyle and human resource articles to local, regional and international newspapers and magazines (basically for free!), I finally got my first (decent) cheque as a full-time writer!

I’m not sure how I came about this particular story idea, but because I was a freelancer I could pitch my own ideas, receive leads from the newsroom, work remotely and still do my other book related stuff (workshops, entertainment events etc).

So there I was, my first opportunity to walk with my Canon T3-Rebel (an impromptu purchase I bought on a trip to the US) and look all ‘official’ almost like the photojournalists I read about as a teenager and young adult – except they were covering stories of war and espionage! And guess what else? It was at my brother’s high school alma mater.

What is ALTA and the lead up to my first assignment

My assignment was at a Reading Circle at the Adult Literacy Tutor’s Association, as opposed to one of their regular classes at other locations. They were expecting me and as I drove onto the school compound I passed by for years, not too far from where we lived (15 minutes), I felt nostalgic walking on the same ground my bro used to play and attend classes.

At the same time, the nerves kicked in and I was (silently) wondering, ‘Can I really do this? Would they know this is the first time I’m doing this ‘on-location’ journalist thing!? Eek! But in about a couple hours, I was driving home lighter than air wondering why I was ever fussing. If they did, they didn’t express it in any way (ironically the same is true for the first workshop I facilitated).

The three volunteer tutors I met were all professionals at the top of their game with very busy schedules doing this as a way to give back to their nation and community for overall improvement in all spheres. And from all looks and appearances, the student-tutor relationship seemed to be a seamless, effortless symbiotic relationship of trust, mutual respect and appreciation for the progress, effort and commitment.

The challenges of inadequate communication

books over green trolley bin

Reading and communicating is something many of us with a solid basic education take for granted. In fact, as human beings we take for granted anything that feels too easy. It can be a real challenge and deterrent to progress if you are unable to readily read a street sign, a billboard, signs at the airport or any international hub (train or bus station), even a license plate, the charts at the eye doctor, supermarket labels (especially if you are on a special diet), a menu at your favourite fast food dive, or a fancy restaurant in the company of others.

If you are religious/spiritual, being unable to follow or understand your religious texts or hymns can be disheartening. Especially if frowned upon by a global society where it is reported by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2012 that 781 million adults in the world population are not literate – of which two thirds are women.  

The gravity of (not) reading with sufficient ease

Difficulty filling out forms, writing your own address or typing your favourite childhood game as the answer to your secret question for your password recovery online can be more than being able to read or write perfectly. It can be mixing up words, or letters for reasons that go way deeper than being passed over as a slow learner, or having attention deficit or a wayward student that prefers to dawdle their time away under an avocado tree. It may be more than going to a ‘good’ school, having ‘good’ genes, having family/parents with an impressive academic track record or nice clothes, a cool book bag et cetera to fit in with the other kids at school.

These things may have a role to play but in my opinion, the communication style of your caregivers/parents/teachers and the environment or conditions you are subject to from a very young age may have a lot to do with setting the tone and shaping your learning capacity and what you do with the education you receive – however great or lacking you deem it.

Many other variables come to mind, like visual/hearing impairments going unnoticed, inadequate diet, inadequate peer support, spaces that allow for distractions or disturbances that inhibit early physical, cellular or emotional growth that act as mental blocks for absorbing, processing or channeling information to maintain mental and physiological balance to obtain the best results.

Why not being able to read is still taboo

two people reading book

Reading is still taboo since what we don’t understand is easy to ridicule on a general level. We were made to believe from various social groups and the media that people who are at a disadvantage socially are frowned upon, especially by those considered way more advanced.

It’s an accepted norm for society to generally dole out a particular type of treatment to young people (especially the mal-adjusted who appear to be menacing or a threat to our safety or security by their dress, or way of communicating/behaving), females, single moms (for some of the same reasons), followers of religions considered to be uncivilized or barbaric.

Also treated as taboo are those considered to be minorities in a society where one ethnicity is in the majority, those deemed unconventional or eccentric due to differences in culture or socialization, those that exhibit more feminine than male qualities if born male (and to a lesser extent, those that exhibit more masculine qualities if born female), those residing in marginalized geographical locations – whether or not they are in living in abject poverty, those numerically or academically challenged.

Those who for one reason or another are involved in committed same-sex relationships, those in bi-racial relationships, those with speech, health or physical impediments, even those vertically challenged (by height!). Or those unable to pull themselves out of a viscous cycle of poverty or ill-health for any of the above reasons and more.

I’d say it comes from the way civilization has progressed (or regressed in some cases) – the philosophies we choose to follow, our choice of books, games, music, films, movies and shows perpetuated by the people we choose to spend time with, the jobs and employers we choose (sometimes the choice is not ours in our early years), the places we choose to spend most of our time and now, the social media channels we choose to follow.

As adults, we have the ultimate choice in what we believe or the treatment we accept that shape our lives for the better or worse. Our emotional health, sensitivity and ability to read and apply information is dependent on our personal space and inner circles. That’s why knowledge is power and organizations such as ALTA provide part of that empowerment for people whose literacy skills may have taken the backburner at different life phases for various reasons.

Changing perspectives

Watching these tutors interact with the adult students inspired an admiration that could not be put into words. And these were successful people treating those deemed to be unsuccessful or marginalized as equals or even family. They didn’t appear to be doing it for praise or recognition (to me, Miss ultra-sensitive, if I am totally honest) at this first meeting in 2015 where I could not trace an ounce of ostentatiousness.

These were people who if you were to encounter in a different setting unawares, you may find yourself (including me) making mental judgments about what their life is really like and who they are as a person. Interacting with them along with the students in a (brief – hour long) professional setting also changed my perspective on what I found to be successful and beautiful qualities as human beings.

From my perspective

My first human interest article made me look at life a bit differently. It wasn’t the first time I encountered such, but I was taken aback by the tutors’ humility and capacity to give in spite of their active lives when the average person in a modern society in my opinion could barely care less for too long, unless there’s something in it for them.

When I rushed home to transcribe my notes, or the audio recording in later years and download the tonnes of photos I captured, I can only describe it to those movies you’d see on the big screen in the olden days where those photographers used those liquids in a darkroom to develop those rolls of negatives before the days of digital cameras.

It was almost like giving birth to see how these articles and pictures came out and were received by most people. It truly took my breath away as I sat there in my own little dark room (in various parts of the house) re-reading and staring at those photos for hours!

I just wanted to bring these people’s stories to life (the students in this case) and see, hear or read how happy it made them (and their families or customers) to have their story told in this way. It was an amazing feeling that I never quite felt in all my years at any full-time job I held since 1997. Now that’s a long time!

Success Stories

  • A contractor who can now write his letters & quotations himself and have more confidence in his conversations in a world where challenges in literacy/communicating are still taboo.
  • A female student who had the confidence to read a poem to the class, interpret it and find joy within from reading (the aged-old philosophy that cannot be taught in a direct way, that joy does not come from other people or inanimate objects).
  • A female student re-discovering her stolen youth by improving her reading. She discovered for example, the significance of the spelling and pronunciation of her (saint) name.
  • The aspirations of two female students to start their separate cleaning and child care businesses with their new literacy skills, now that their children are grown and doing well with the skills taught to them in their formative years with the tutoring from their moms in spite of their humble beginnings/education in those days due to family commitments.

Fulfilment manifested

One tutor explained that learning is encouraged by allowing students to think below the surface by reading from world icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and others, as well as other strategies. There’s a special JOY evident from giving of your time et cetera, without expecting anything in return and receiving so much more than you ever expected. Tutors (some current or former educators at various levels) shared that the exponential milestones of the students expanded their worldview, resulting in greater fulfilment in both themselves and all students.

Know somebody too timid to improve their reading/literacy skills?

A male student offered advice to anyone wanting to join the reading circles. He said the fear or possible shame of not being able to read the way you want to as an adult will disappear, since the tutors and students are all part of one big happy family,

 “Nobody is made to feel stupid or slow for all the years and different reading circles I’ve been at ALTA.”

A female student beamed as she recalled her memory of opening a book and being able to identify words that made sense at the juncture she was at in life,

“You are getting a second chance to improve your life as an adult and you should jump at the opportunity. Nobody should influence you when you have a chance to do something positive for yourself and others – your customers, your creativity, your earning power, your children, your partner, your family will all be impacted and everyone will appreciate the new and improved you! It’s like having a new lease on life – in spite of the rocky start.”