Mary Carey: Illiteracy is a fixable problem

October 1, 2013 

“I can’t read it.”

“What does it say?”

“I’m good at figuring these things out; does it say … ?”

All around town are signs with a bunch of letters that don’t mean anything.

But if you can’t read, then all signs look like this to you. For nearly half of Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s economically disadvantaged kids, all signs look like this every day. These kids go to school, and books look like this to them: A bunch of letters that don’t mean anything.

Let’s imagine what it might be like for a child who can’t read:

It is frustrating to see a group of letters and not be able to interpret their meaning. If all the letters are incomprehensible, then you might start losing interest in trying to read anything. You might not want to participate in things that require reading, like school. You may feel badly because everyone else knows what the letters mean except you.

So you might leave school. You would need to make money, so you apply for a job. There are all those letters again. You ask to take the application home. Hopefully, you won’t need to read for your job. There must be jobs that don’t require reading, right?

You didn’t start out feeling so badly about yourself. When you see your kindergarten picture, you smile at how earnest you look. You remember that you loved your teacher and she made you “student of the day” once. The letters were there then, and you kept quiet about not knowing what they meant.

You got really good at keeping your secret. Everyone told you first grade is easy, but you’re not getting it. When it is time to read, you go to the bathroom. Other good distractions are sharpening your pencil or dropping your book so you lose your place. Then you learn the ultimate distraction – you become a behavioral problem.

By middle school, the back of the class is your domain. Teachers are warned about you. The pressure of keeping your secret gets to be a bit much at times. You are angry; sometimes you lose your temper.

Things get much easier in high school. Maybe you get high before school. Maybe you skip. Maybe you just fall asleep in class.

This is a typical storyline for 43 percent of our economically disadvantaged students. Is there a surer route to poverty than illiteracy?

Bootstraps is a political action committee (, whose aim is to shed light on the significant illiteracy problem in our schools. This isn’t just an education issue. This is a human rights issue. It is a social justice issue. A child learns to read until third grade. Then he reads to learn. If he can’t read, he can’t learn. Literacy is the key to gaining an education.

This is a fixable problem. It isn’t the child’s problem or the school’s problem. It is our problem. This problem belongs to all of us.

We know that illiteracy has correlations with nearly every society ill from the dropout rate to drug and alcohol abuse, to unemployment and the crime rate. If we don’t help that child read, it hurts all of us.

What can you do? You can help. You can give an hour a week and help out in a classroom. If you have a few hours, you could be a mentor. You could help an adult who doesn’t know how to read.

Orange County is the most educated place in our country, yet nearly half of our most vulnerable students can’t read. We can fix this.

We should fix this.

Mary Carey is the campaign director of Bootstraps PAC.

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