Sept. 8 makes 54 Years of celebrating International Literacy Day

In elementary school, he was put in special ed because of learning and reading delays. The label followed him all the way through high school. He graduated from Toledo High School with an IEP diploma.

He worked as a landscaper and janitor; he struggled to live on his own because he could not read.

However, he’s a survivor. For years, he’s been working at a mill, operating a large Caterpillar. He’s wanted to learn how to read for more than two decades. At age 36, the proverbial light bulb went off on Aug. 3, 2021.

Reading tutors who worked through Mid-Valley Literacy Center rendezvoused to assist this man’s reading. One of the tutors is my friend, and she reports her “student learner” is reading sometimes fluidly. She’s been at this since March, meeting him in Toledo once a week.

My friend hails from Chile and has been a teacher locally, as well as a substitute in Lincoln County. She’s fluent in Spanish and English and works as a professional translator. Maria, a library tech and another tutor have been working with this young man for six months.

More than 43 million adults in the U.S. cannot read, write or do basic math above a third grade level. That’s one stat, and professionals I work with — I’ve been an English and writing teacher for more than three and a half decades, in El Paso, Juarez, Mexico, Spokane, Seattle, Portland, other places — say the actual figure is much higher, around the 60 to 80 million mark.

In one diverse study, 80 percent of people trying to properly install an infant car seat failed one or more steps because of “an inability to follow directions written at a sixth grade level.”

Other stats point out if the U.S. was to increase average reading grade levels to the sixth grade, an additional $2.2 million a year would be added the economy.

Maria’s student is looking to move into an area of the mill where reading instructions and understanding safety manuals are a must. Getting out of the seat of a bouncing, loud log loader will also help him strengthen his longevity at the job.

I have worked with this student. He lives on his own, does amazing engine work on his truck, and he eventually wants to get certification and open up his own car repair shop.

He tells me that he was picked on beginning in second grade for his inability to sound out words and lack of skills to do “read-alongs.” This stigma is common in Lincoln County. Poverty, one-parent family dynamics, and other adverse childhood events (ACES) impact a youth’s ability to learn at grade level.

Others are born with some form of developmental disability. We are seeing as a society more youth entering our primary schools with learning/intellectual disability — a phrase that stigmatizes people.

I’ve worked with adults as a supported employment professional in Seattle, Portland, Gladstone, Beaverton and Lincoln County; and assisted adults in advocating for themselves in order to land jobs and keep those jobs. Reading, writing and math sometimes are impediments, either individually, or collectively.

However, all those services Oregon has set up around supported employment and housing do give people a hand up. Maria’s student has had dozens of folks come into his life, informally, who started reading sessions, but all quickly moved on. Maria, 78, is dedicated to this gentleman.

She reports to me that “he is finally reading, sometimes pretty complex sentences. He has a big smile on his face now when we meet.”

Maria’s student is one of millions worldwide who should be valorized for succeeding. All our hats should be off for this local man: Sept. 8 is International Literacy Day.  “Since 1967, International Literacy Day celebrations have taken place annually around the world to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society. Despite progress made, literacy challenges persist with at least 773 million young people and adults lacking basic literacy skills today.”

Paul Haeder is a novelist, journalist, educator and the author of “Wide Open Eyes,” Cirque Press, 2020.

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