The Devastating Impact of Illiteracy

I found my freedom through reading. I loathe the thought that there are people out there who don’t know how huge the world is, how magnificent it can be, because they can’t read.

What is illiteracy if it’s not a type of prison? To me, illiteracy is no different than drugs or prison. In some respects, it’s even worse than being locked away in jail, because you’re locked away in your own mind.

When I was 15 and first discovered that I couldn’t read or write, I became despondent. I was burdened with the thought that I was incapable of learning.

Later, when working with my tutor, I discovered that I had even fooled myself. I would look at words on the page, desperately trying to find ones I recognized, like “cat” or “dog”. Before that, I had always made up stories from the words I recognized; I thought that was ‘reading’.

The nuts and bolts of learning to read is only one part of the equation. Without the proper encouragement and nurturing of the mind, too many kids will never reach their full potential. I once stood before my Grade 10 class in Bushwick. It was career day, and we were supposed to tell the rest of the class our plans. I said I wanted to become a lawyer. After a long, uncomfortable pause, my teacher leaned over and whispered: “You need to do something more realistic with your life. Learn a trade, be a garbage man, do something with your hands.” Her comments were a crushing blow to me.

During my stay in Toronto with the Canadians, my tutor used just about everything he could to motivate me to learn. He would often say: “Write something from your heart. Tell me what you feel.” After I read Rubin Carter’s “The Sixteenth Round” my teacher asked me to write down my feelings. And that’s how I began to learn. In turn, Rubin’s unjust imprisonment taught me that no matter what people take away from you physically, they can’t take away what you’ve learned.

When I speak before audiences, I like to remind them that “….it’s important to learn not just with your mind, but with your heart. Only one heart can teach another heart what the written word doesn’t say.”