What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor. When America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

I am

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They’re so excited to see me, because this is Something New.

I come to kindergarten to support a new teacher and students struggling to master sight words.

Today, we work on am.

We read the word several times. I ask my six little friends at the table to think of sentences with the word am:

I am wearing a dress.

I am a boy.

I am eating a banana.

One little boy says, “I am a good reader.”

His face is full of light. Of hope. This is what he believes, that he is a good reader.

Dear God, never let anything squelch this hope. 

He is more than a data point

more than a projected

 subgroup statistic

 system failure

evaluation to be held against a school, a teacher.

I look at this child.

I say, “Yes. Keep reading, keep trying, and you will get better and better.”

He grins from ear to ear.

We keep working on am. We write the sentences that they compose themselves. I am writing them on strips as they write them on paper. They trace mine with a finger; I cut the words apart. I scramble and they reconstruct. We read a short book where I am recurs over and over.

“This is fun!” says another little boy, beaming.  “When will you come back?”

I am. I am. I am. I am. I am. I am.

Yes, you are.

You are here.

You are little human beings with a big future.

You are full of potential, possibility.

I am honored to have this time with you.

Between the moon and New York City

Harvest moon

Harvest moon. patrick pearceCC BY-NC-ND

I have to get to work early. Several teachers have asked for help, and I need to prepare. It’s sometimes all or nothing in the life of a literacy coach.

I rue the hour, but I quickly realize a perk.

A gift, even.

Against the pre-dawn October sky, the full moon is enormous. Breathtaking. As I drive the back country roads, it looms just ahead of me, darting in and out of trees as I round curves

Oh, the Harvest Moon! So beautiful, I think.

The moon is oddly big and bright. I knew it was full when I woke up, as the bedroom was bathed in ethereal, silvery light even with the blinds drawn. There’s something deeply magnetic in its intensity this morning, beyond its size. I shiver. The first autumn chill is in the air. It’s the time of year when strange things are afoot, stirring the dying leaves, whispering of time past.

Do you remember.

Something dormant wakes with a jolt, rushes back – the electricity of being young, on the cusp of a major life event, with the unknown stretching before me. I’m like a racehorse at the starting gate, quivering with anticipation, ready to break free, to run for all I’m worth.

I blink, and the overpowering moon transports me right back.

I am nineteen and I believe I can be an actress.

I really do.

After several years of high school plays and local theater productions, plus a year of college theater courses to my credit, I’ve decided I want more than the traditional education route. I’m chasing a dream: I’ve applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

They’ve scheduled my audition.

In a rather surreal haze, I catch a train in my Virginia hometown to meet my older cousin, Dan, in Washington, D.C., where he lives. The next morning, we hop on Amtrak to New York.

I’ve been to the Big Apple once before, with my high school drama club. The proximity and height of the buildings almost suffocated me: “There’s hardly any sky to see,” I told a classmate. I then learned why it’s nicknamed The City That Never Sleeps. All night long I heard traffic, voices, sirens.

This time I know what to expect.  This time I am pulsing with energy, ready for my moment – a racehorse pawing the ground at the gate.

This train isn’t moving fast enough.

Dan is wildly excited about my audition: “You’re the maverick of the family,” he tells me.

I look at his earnest green eyes. For a moment, I fear I’ll disappoint everyone. Our aunt, our mothers’ unmarried sister, has given me a framed picture of a harlequin holding a rose, sitting on a crescent moon amongst stars in the sky. This reminds me of you, she wrote on the back. Somewhere between the moon and New York City.

Lyrics to “Arthur’s Theme,” of course. The song by Christopher Cross, subtitled “Best That You Can Do”:

When you get caught between the Moon and New York City
I know it’s crazy, but it’s true
If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

My spinster aunt means it as an encouragement for me to do my best, believing I’ll succeed on the stage. I understand this just as much as I understand I’m not about to be falling in love.  At nineteen I am decidedly jaded. I don’t want a boyfriend and have secretly sworn off relationships. Guys my around my age, I’ve learned, are not to be trusted. I do not have time to waste on them.

“What do you have to do for the audition?” Dan asks, as the ugly backsides of major East Coast cities zip by the train windows.

“A dramatic piece and a comedy piece,” I tell him. “For the dramatic, Alison’s monologue from Look Back in Anger, after she’s lost a baby. For the comedy piece I’ve spliced together Babe’s lines from Crimes in the Heart. Dark, Southern humor. Really hilarious.”

His eyes glow. “You have to perform these for me!”

Once we are settled in the city, I do. It’s my final rehearsal.

Dan is delighted. “You’re going to make it. I just know it.”

I’m not sure, but I think I detect tears in his vivid eyes.

The hour comes. After a short conversation with Academy officials, I step onto the empty stage. There’s no spotlight. It all feels quite ordinary.

I give the monologues all I’ve got, full rein to the electric charge coursing in my veins – the best that I can do.

The faces of the Academy people are inscrutable. They shake my hand:

“Thank you. We will inform you of our decision by letter within a few weeks.”

I stumble back into the shadows of Madison Avenue where I barely recognize my cousin.

“How did it go?”

“Okay, I think,” I tell him, and only then do I realize how violently I’m shaking.

“I am so proud of you!” His smile is magnificent as he wraps me in a bear hug.

Now we can roam the fabled streets at our leisure. It’s January and utterly freezing, but we don’t let that stop us from going to the top of the Empire State Building where our carefully-styled hair stands on end in the frigid gale. In a tiny restaurant, I have my first cappuccino – a frothy, cinnamon wonder. At a nondescript shop we buy teal scarves that are at least four feet wide and about eight feet long. We loop them around our necks multiple times.

Dan says, “Have you noticed how people are looking at us? They think we are somebody – they’re trying to figure out if we’re famous.”

He is right. I catch our reflection in the shopfront glass – we can pass for ’80s pop stars.

That bright image is a freeze-frame. The rest of my memory curls like fog around the edges of it.

Dan was also right about something else.

A couple of weeks later, I pulled an envelope bearing the Academy’s return address out of a stack from the mailbox. My hands shook so that I could hardly open it.

I cried.

I was on my way to New York City for real. To live, to make my way, to do what I loved best.

I didn’t have a dime to my name or any idea how I’d manage to find a place to live in New York, come August; all I knew was that in the meantime I needed to keep performing. I went to the next community theater audition, for Whose Life Is It Anyway? I walked through the door and instantly spotted, across the room, sitting in a chair, the handsomest man I’d ever seen. Black hair, brooding dark eyes, classic features – if we’d been living in the 1940s, this guy could double for Tyrone Power.

He looked up, saw me, and smiled.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

I was going to New York.

I didn’t want a boyfriend.

We both got parts in the play.

This was the end of January.

In May, he gave me his mother’s diamond engagement ring.

We were married in August.

The Academy said I had a year, if I wanted, to enroll.

Within the year, my young husband told me he was called to the ministry.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City . . . .

There are Things Meant to Be and Things Not Meant to Be, I hear myself whisper.

At least, I think that’s myself whispering.

I blink – and here I am, three decades and two grown boys later, still married to the same preacher man, driving to work, pondering how to help teachers and students, while a magical moon dips in and out of the trees. I am in rural North Carolina, a far cry from New York City. Never made it to Broadway, except as a member of the audience.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances . . . .

I wonder what Dan would say now about my being the family maverick. He’s been gone for years. His exit came so early; he died at thirty-four.

I drive on under the Harvest Moon, noting how the darkness is no match for its spellbinding brightness. I am flooded with gratitude for all I’ve been given, realizing that the autumn of my life has not even begun.

Yes, Moon. I remember.

And so I play my part – the best that I can.

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