Inspired by Illiteracy by Maria Canela
I was brought to this country by an illiterate father and barely literate mother; both had been raised in the Dominican Republic with little access to an education. I was in the fifth grade when I first realized that my father could not read or write. We were standing at the bank and he was asked to sign his name. He wrote an X and explained to the teller that he could not sign his name and that was all he could provide. The teller smiled and processed the transaction. On the way home, I asked my father why he could not sign his name, and he said his father never sent him to school. I was baffled and kept asking questions even though he did not appear to want to get into the topic. He explained that he only went to first grade for two days before being told that he could no longer attend. He never got the opportunity to learn how to read, and I was astonished.
Learning about my father’s inability to read or write has always remained with me. My desire to read increased after this conversation, and I became completely obsessed with not just the stories I was reading, but the idea of literacy as a whole. The idea of my father feeling confused and lost anytime he passes by a piece of writing hurts my heart for I know the struggle that it has brought him; he has now been in this country for twenty six years working blue collar jobs with little to no promise of growth.
From the moment that I began reading, I became enamored with words and how they come together to relay messages. I began going to the library with my cousin in order to have access to more books. We would take out eight books at a time and split them; after we were done with the first four, we would switch and read the other four. One of the best parts of our ritual was having conversations about the stories and sharing our love for the different characters and storylines. We would also do pair, out-loud reading where we read chapters to each other and talked about the events taking place in each chapter as part of our process.
Reading for school was also an integral part of my growing love for literature. Teachers always chose books that were different from the ones my cousin and I chose at the library. Their selections were directly connected to the school curriculum, and this is where I learned to enjoy classics, such as Jane Eyre and one of my all time favorites, The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield’s story has remained a favorite of mine since seventh grade. I had the pleasure of recently teaching it to eleventh grade students, which was a different experience than reading it for pleasure, but most certainly eventful and fulfilling.
It was also while reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time that I noticed my father’s sadness when it came to literacy. I was reading in my bedroom when he walked past and with his head down glanced my way and kept walking. He had too much pride to speak to me about his feelings, but throughout the years it became apparent to me that he was missing a piece of life. Reading is not just about meeting new characters and enjoying the stories they tell us; it is about comprehension and feeling like you can connect to something through the words of the author. I still cannot fathom the idea that someone cannot be a part of literacy and all its benefits. Literacy is great because it allows us to connect with each other as well as to disconnect when necessary. Without the ability to read and write, we are void of communication skills necessary for the understanding of people, ideas, and life.
Maria Canela is a middle school/high school certified English teacher, who is currently working as a building substitute at Cedarbrook Middle School in Pennsylvania. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, daughter, and dog. She is currently working on a memoir and her first children’s book with her cousin about a girl named Bella and her puppy, Bentley. You can follow her on instagram at @dmfisher_22. She blogs about a variety of topics including being a mom and teacher at canelam.wordpress.com