I have to admit I’ve done my fair share of complaining about life. My life has seen more twists and turns than I can count, and I spent a good portion of my life lamenting on how terrible I’ve had it at times. Sometimes though, I have an experience that makes me realize just how much I tend to take for granted.
Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe I am the most experienced 29-year-old in the world today. Those who know me best can attest to the fact that my life is a story of incredible highs and lows: one of great achievement, of overcoming adversity, but also one which contains unspeakable tragedies.
Overall, I’m stronger because of this, and having the benefit of perfect hindsight, there are very few things I would change about my life. I’ve built character through the trials and tribulations I’ve encountered and been on the receiving end of life’s many great experiences because of it. I proudly pass on the wisdom I’ve collected to those who request it, and actively seek out those who provide it. And last week, I found wisdom in the most unlikely of places.
Last week, I was doing some research for an article I was writing about cuts to a literacy class at Douglas College in New Westminster. You can read the article here. I had exchanged emails with a basic literacy instructor and had asked her for a comment, but she had instead invited me to speak to her class, an invitation which I accepted.
A few days later, on the way to the college, I thought to myself that this would be a boring story. Literacy, after all, was not the type of story I found interesting. It wasn’t sexy and I wasn’t able to relate to them, because I was reading at a college level when I was in Grade 5.
I ran through this thinking that this was not a problem at all because it the vast majority of the population is not affected by it. I had failed to remember what my mother told me when I visited her this past summer, about some people I knew growing up who weren’t very literate either, and some of the challenges they faced.
I entered the college basement and looked around for twenty minutes before I found the classroom. Upon my arrival, the students, many of them older than I, looked at me as though I was a lifelong friend – gazing at me with a kind of reverence I had not expected.
After exchanging some initial pleasantries, the instructor introduced me to the class, and I took up a position in the center of the room. I had told them a little bit about myself and why I was meeting them, and invited them to share their stories. I had, for some reason, expected them to be confrontational and, again for reasons unsupported by any common sense, unable to present me with a coherent anecdote.
I was wrong. In fact, I was blown-away by their forthrightness and their ability to express their feelings to me. They opened my eyes to the fact that literacy is an issue; a big one, for which I, of all people as a writer and journalist, should be doing something about.
At the college, there is much talk about how post-secondary education should be a right; many in the student body think so and those in the student union work to make it so. But what about literacy? If a college or university education is to be a right, then literacy shouldn’t even be a topic of discussion – it shouldn’t even exist as a word.
The stories they shared with me struck something inside – I became outraged at these proposed cuts to the literacy class. I got mad. I couldn’t make sense of it – how is it, that in a country as beloved and developed as Canada, could literacy be something our countrymen and women face? And how can we justify eliminating these programs for those who so desperately want it.
These students were not paying for the class, and they shouldn’t. It amazed me; however, that their commitment to learning was far greater than many of those students who were paying to get their college education.
Their stories are heartbreaking.
One woman told me of her life abroad and how she immigrated to Canada with her children. She had not been given a basic education as a child, and is now learning to read as an adult. She would often make up excuses, like forgetting her reading glasses, in order to get assistance filling out basic forms at the bank or the doctor’s office.
One gentleman told me a story about how he had dismissed education as a child – he opted to start working young because he needed to make money. Now, he wants to be more independent, feeling somewhat sorry for the members of his family who often assist him in errands.
Or another woman, who had lived in New Westminster for much of her life, who had not left the small community… ever. Never had she visited the world class sites of the City of Vancouver, a short transit ride away – because she was unable to read a bus schedule.
We need to do more for these students, not less. We need to help them help themselves, not shut the door on them. Why are those in positions to help these students become independent make it so that they can’t get the assistance they so desperately seek. With some help, we can make them stand up on their own.
From time to time, I have anxiety issues when speaking to crowds and so I’ve always preferred written communication. If only those students could read this… they’d know that their cause now has a champion in me.