Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, author Lillian Slugocki spoke about short stories, a post that continues to be popular. Today it is my absolute pleasure to welcome journalist Valerie Waterhouse who interviews author Aileen Godat, about how, aged 16, she overcame illiteracy.
- Like most North Americans, you attended school (in Queens, New York) — but aged 16, you realized you were illiterate. How is it possible for a child in a modern-day, occidental country to slip through the education net?
A: In 1964, I was 11 years old. In the eyes of my mother, the Sisters of Charity, my grandparents and all others in my young life, I was a troubled girl. Aside from the family fights that trumpeted from our apartment, no one knew what was happening after dark in the confines of my home. If someone knew, would they have intervened? Would they have understood why I was unable to learn in school? Would they have known what to do to help me? My brother had the support of clubs, teams and activities designed to assist boyhood and grow successful men. Girls didn’t need an education to change a diaper, wash a floor or clean a house. As my mother before me, I was directed towards domesticity. So, my guess is that it was easier to let the ‘bad girl’ slip through the cracks than it was to address the cause of my difficulty.
2. Illiteracy, it seems, often masks greater troubles. In the USA, for instance, 70% of prison inmates are illiterate. Fortunately, your life took a totally different path. What made you finally acknowledge your illiteracy?
A: One morning while taking a shower at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between the shampoo and conditioner bottle. I was compelled to do something.
3. Interesting that something so banal yet important turned around your life! You then taught yourself to read and write. How did you manage this?
A: Going back to school was not an option. I had no trust for the system. I began phonetically, it seemed like the natural place to start since I knew words like stop, house, cat, man and other short words that could be sounded out. I began to comb over magazines making out what words I could. Little by little my ability to recognize words around me grew. I slowly became comfortable asking for help. I still work on confidence and belief in myself as a writer.
4. Today, though, you ARE a published writer – and a teacher, too. For the Forge Literary Magazine, you wrote a startlingly honest piece about stealing from the Catholic Church as a deprived child, aged 11. Is this part of a longer memoir?
A: Yes, Secret Robin Hood? is part of a memoir I began writing in 2014. At present I have eleven other pieces, some of which are published, in Foliate Oak and Forge Literary Magazine – with more to come.
5. How do you feel about being published. Has it helped with your confidence?
A: Oh yes, it has. I still suffer from self doubt – but not for much longer, hopefully!
6. What kind of school do you teach in?
A: I became a Montessori teacher and have worked with children of all ages for 35 years. I haven’t been involved in programs dealing specifically with illiteracy, but I do believe children learn when there is example, enthusiasm, safety, support, encouragement and acknowledgement. These important factors I bring to each child.
7. Returning to your teenage years, how did being illiterate affect your experience of everyday life?
A: I spent much of my young life numb, floating, hiding or fighting. I was very sensitive and intuitive yet my most prominent difficulty was the humiliation I felt among my peers as a complete failure. I was unable to hold a job that required reading or writing. By pure fortune I was given jobs in a dress shop, at the diner, as a nanny, by people I now consider angels.
8. What were the main advantages you noticed, once you learned to read?
A: The first book I read cover to cover was Acupuncture, the Chinese Art of Healing. I was twenty-one. It was life changing. It confirmed the existence of energy and the ill-effect imbalance could have on a person, thus I began to choose friends with better energy and to think about my own energy. Most of the books I read I chose based on what I wanted to learn. The world opened to me. I now had the chance to become the person I wanted to be. I found tools, guidance and direction in the books I read.
9. Were there any advantages in being illiterate? Did you lose anything?
A: It’s hard to say what I gained or lost. I developed keen senses and observation skills, I’m a problem solver, I’m great with my hands, always making something … art. Sewing and macramé as a girl, silver and goldsmithery as an adult. Whatever I might have lost, I gained or am gaining back twofold through literacy.
10. What are the statistics on illiteracy in the USA today? How does this compare to other countries around the world?
A: According to the US Department of Education, around 14% of adult Americans are illiterate. Obviously, this is a relatively low percentage compared to the 65% illiteracy rate in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is still far too high. Around two-thirds of the world’s 757 million illiterate adults are women, significantly.
11. What advice do you have for a person who wishes to rise above the illiteracy trap? (Obviously, those in this situation won’t be able to read this – but someone may be able to pass the information on.)
A: Advice isn’t something I would have taken. I don’t think advice is what helped me to survive and to overcome my situation. I wanted to become literate and kept at it, as I do to this day.
I would ask any person who has or is around kids to keep a close watch, notice changes in behavior and if a child seems troubled – look deeper. Kids don’t tell: the ramifications are too much to handle.
Thank you Aileen.
For more inspiring stories of overcoming illiteracy, see www.projectliteracy.com. The site also contains suggestions about how to donate or become involved with worldwide literacy schemes. Connect with Valerie Waterhouse on Twitter: @val_in_italy
Are you an author or reader? Have questions for Aileen? Have you had any interaction with those struggling with illiteracy? Tell us all about it in the comments!
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