Reading and writing

Of all the things we take for granted, the ability to read might be the most central to our lives. We tend to think that everyone can do that. It comes naturally, like breathing. That’s particularly true in the area where I live. A high percentage of the people who live in my town hold advanced degrees. Yet the latest figures I could find show that about 9 percent of my neighbors in my county can’t read or write. That’s more than 7,800 people in a population of about 87,000.

These folks can’t read a street sign, can’t sign their names, can’t fill out an application or questionnaire. Think about that. Imagine yourself in this situation.

We do take the gift of our own literacy for granted. Most of the people I know love to read. In my childhood home, books were everywhere, and we read them. We all had library cards and used them until they became dog eared from so much use. In adulthood my dear wife and I regularly took our three daughters on excursions to the library, where each of them loaded up with a stack of books to last them until the next trip. Later, as they grew up and moved away, we visited them and their children, who greeted us at the door, holding plies of books, begging Grandma to read to them.

“Books,” one of our daughters declared when she was a child, “are like vacations.” She started reading when she was 3.

Life for those who can’t read is much more difficult and complicated. Fortunately, we are blessed with literacy councils whose volunteers are working constantly to help them learn to read and write. Last night, the Chatham County, NC, Literacy Council staged a fund-raising event that featured the music of The Ambassadors Big Band, a 17-piece swing band based in Chapel Hill. (Full disclosure: I sing with this band and serve as its announcer.) Lots of happy people enjoyed an evening of food, drinks and dancing to the live music. In the process, they raised money to support their exemplary work in the community. As a program highlight, a volunteer tutor spoke of the joy he experiences in helping others to read. One of his students rose to express his gratitude. His life, he said, has been changed.

Not only his life. Many are being changed for the better. Let’s help change more lives. When we do, everyone wins.

Today’s word: lay or lie. So many of us routinely get this wrong. Lay takes an object. Lie doesn’t. I will lay the book on the table. The nurse told me to lie on my left side so she could give me the injection. Never tell someone that you are going to lay down. It’s lie down, unless there’s an object involved, as in: Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside.

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