The man made eye contact with me in the rear view mirror. His eyes were hazel, opened wide in surprise, and most alarmingly, not on the road, which overflowed with taxis and bus lanes, bums and bicycles. I knew that I should have confidence in this seasoned New York driver to safely pilot his yellow Toyota Sienna taxicab, I just wished he’d watch the road. He had just asked me where I worked, and I’d told him that I’m the volunteer coordinator at an adult literacy organization.
“Literacy?” he asked. “As in, able to read?” He verified my meaning or his hearing, or both.
“Yes, adult literacy.”
“You are telling me,” he said in accented but fluid English, “that here, in the greatest country in the – the – the UNIVERSE,” he said with humor that was both teasing and affectionate, “there are people older than 8, 9 years old, who cannot read?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
His eyes opened wider. I wondered if his ocular muscles would rupture as they strained to convey his shock.
“Well, they must be immigrants,” he said. His eyes settled back into their sockets once this reasonable explanation had occurred to him. We glided up Park Avenue.
“Well, some are,” I told him. “But some are Americans.” I explained that it is my job to recruit and train volunteers to be reading tutors.
“I came to this country 13, almost 14 years ago,” he said. His taxicab operator’s license, posted on the headrest of his seat, indicated his eastern European origin. “I attended the classes for English as a Second Language two, three times a week. I didn’t learn much. And then I met with the girl, the English tutor, one-on-one, and that is when I learned English. She was very helpful. You find people like her, who help?”
“Yes, I recruit the volunteers. Some of our clients can read and write and just want to learn English,” I told him. “But some can only read a little, and want to learn. Many adults in South Carolina cannot read well. Many adults in the whole country.”
“In New York? Not in New York!!” He did the shocked, eye-popping, rearview mirror face again, while the cab zoomed around a corner. “Not even in Harlem, or the Bronx, are there adults who cannot read,” he asserted. But there was a question in his tone. He clearly had a love and patriotism for the United States, and especially for New York.
“In New York it’s about 15, maybe 20% of adults who can’t read well,” I said. “It’s a lot worse in the South.”
“And how is it that so many adults cannot read? Did they not go to school, or…?” We merged onto FDR Drive. The East River was greenish gray in the morning light.
“Many reasons,” I said. “Some people have learning disabilities or dyslexia. Some people live in rural farming areas and school was very far away, or they had to help work on the farm to support the family. Some people, their father died or something and they had to drop out of school and go to work.”
He was smart and open-minded; once again I could see the plausible explanations crystallizing in his mind.
“But what do they do? How can a person who can’t read, have any kind of job? Maybe cleaning, or dishwashing…” The full impact of literacy was dawning on him. “They can’t read the newspaper or contracts, or forms at the doctor’s office… And what about their children?”
“It’s better for the whole community when its residents are literate,” I said. “Companies don’t want to start up in a place where there are under-educated employees. Children are more likely to learn to read if their parents can read.” I recited my elevator speech, watching in his face as his understanding rapidly eclipsed the shock.
“Wow. So there is less tax dollars, and – and – less money for schools, and – ” he said as we crossed over the Long Island Expressway bridge. He was looking for the EZ Pass toll lane, and I was looking at New York, still unfolding before my eyes. Throughout the trip I was constantly amazed that yes, New York is really that crowded. And from the vantage point of the bridge, I could see where a percentage of them lived: rows and rows of brick buildings laid out like child’s blocks as far as I could see…
“So you help them learn reading so they can get better jobs? And then it is better for the whole community. Not just the individual person.”
“Exactly,” I replied. “It’s better for everyone when adults are able to read.” Now he had made the key logical leap that sometimes policy-makers get hung up on. We help people on an individual basis, one by one, but with an eye to the community as a whole. And it works – our number one source of new clients is word-of-mouth.
“So you are doing this work to improve the whole town of Columbia, South Carolina.” he said. Yes!
After a weekend of flitting around New York in the colorful, rollicking, almost magical subway (cram in, hang on, and pop out at your destination!), I experienced it differently in the cab. (The above-ground version of cram in, hang on!) As I got out of the cab at LaGuardia airport and waved goodbye to our newest Friend of Literacy, I felt that we had both truly learned something about our world.