Dear Father of That Six-Year Old Girl Whose Name I Can’t Remember:
Eleven years ago our paths crossed for a few minutes. I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me. I, however, can’t shake you out of my head, especially around this time of year.
As my husband and I took our son to start his first day of second grade the image of you—walking up the sidewalk to Edison Environmental Science Academy—burned in my mind. I happened to be one of Kalamazoo Public Schools “Celebrity Greeters” back in 2001, one of many people sprinkled throughout the district to welcome students to their first day of school, help them line up, and find their way.
Remember taking your daughter to kindergarten? It was a warm day and you wore a flannel shirt and frayed, long pants two sizes too big for you. Your daughter’s hair was neatly combed and she was wearing a small but nervous smile. You were sweating. You looked uncomfortable, like you wanted to be anywhere else but at a school. Your little girl was tightly holding your hand. She looked scared but you looked even more scared.
Someone in the crowd of parents, students, and teachers must have directed you to the student list of names posted to wall outside the school. I lost track of you and then saw you again. I don’t know how long you were standing there but you were moving your finger up and down the list. The list fluttered to the ground. Without letting go of your daughter’s hand, you bent over and picked it up. With your fingers, you slowly pressed the four corners of the taped list to the wall. Again, you stood in front of the paper, then shrugged your shoulders, turned to your daughter and said, “You aren’t on the list.” Her face crumpled. You both turned away from the school. I approached you, glancing at the list. I realized then why you looked so scared.
You couldn’t read.
I removed the paper you had taped upside down. I crouched down and asked your daughter her name. Her name has left me but I remember her voice was like a soft wind, a whisper really. I had to ask her two more times before I could make it out. It turned out, she was on the list.
I’ve wondered over the years about your daughter. She should be in high school now. How is she doing? Is she on track for graduating soon? I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but before she had even set foot inside a school she already had a huge obstacle to overcome. Adult illiteracy.
I know you love her. It was obvious that day. You even loved your daughter enough to walk her into a world which you could not fully participate in. When did she stop trying to hand over that book she wanted you to read to her? (A girl can only take so much shoulder shrugging and being turned away.) When she entered third grade, could you read and sign that form that would have allowed her to be in Girls on the Run? You probably couldn’t help much with homework, filling out school forms, reading her school and classroom communications, all things important to your daughter’s ultimate success. You missed out on one of the greatest joys in life—reading with your child.
My heart ached for you and your daughter that day. It still does. I wonder, are you still one of the 31,000 adults (13%) in Kalamazoo County who can’t read? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but have you unknowingly passed down your illiteracy to your daughter? Illiteracy is like a disease. It spreads. Children whose parents are illiterate are twice as likely as their peers to be functionally illiterate. The good news is that it is treatable and there are organizations like The Kalamazoo Literacy Council that are working to combat adult illiteracy.
I’d like to think that you can read now because you eventually got connected with them. It takes a brave man to walk his child into a place of learning, bursting with words and books that he can not read. It takes an even braver parent to admit that he is illiterate and to do something about it.
If you happen to read this, will you write back and let me know how your daughter is doing?