The following article appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune on September 8, 2011.
Literacy is referred to as “the people’s campaign,” partly because of the volunteerism in this effort. But the real “people” here are the students who emerge from darkness with a burning torch and from silence with voices that tell of their journeys to literacy.
Meet 23 year-old Dominique Calhoun.
Growing up in Reno, Dominique thought he would become a truck driver, like his father. But in school, something was making him see letters “backwards.” He knew by age 6 that he was not getting it. “All the other kids knew how to read and I didn’t. I knew right away. They called me ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid,’ and I was in fights all the time.”
He remembers a teacher from second grade who was helping him learn but who went away. He says, “At that time, I knew I was learning.” Years later, he was told by his ninth-grade teacher that, at best, he would end up being a thug. “I didn’t understand it. There was nothing wrong with me. I knew I could be somebody.”
Today, Dominique, a student of literacy programs associated with the San Diego Council on Literacy, is a graduate of the Adult Learner Leadership Institute, a leadership development program for advanced literacy students.
When asked if he thought this day would ever come, he said, “No. I thought I’d be dead or in prison. Four years ago, I couldn’t read at all.”
“I was homeless for two months, and that’s a scary thing,” Dominique said. “I left Reno and went to live with my sister in San Diego and she helped me. She looked at my reading skills and said, ‘Dominique. You can’t read anything.’ Once I became part of a reading program, I found out that I wasn’t alone in struggling to read.”
Dominique remembers the day when he realized that he was consistently breaking the code. “The letters and the sounds were all coming together for me. I broke down in tears and I raced home to tell my sister. It was my tutors who kept me encouraged.” One of his tutors was Gilbert Sandoval, a former literacy student himself. His tutors, all volunteers, saw that Dominique had the ability to read and reach his goals.
Eventually, his hard work paid off. “I can read my bills now. I can fill out an application; I can read a lot more work-related materials. I’m a janitor now. People think that janitors don’t need to do much reading. I not only have to read. I have to write and I have to do math.”
His future plans include going to college. “And I want to speak to other young people, the troublemakers and class clowns and low-level readers, because I know that if they learn the way that I did, they’re going to be more motivated than the average person. I want to be a schoolteacher.”
Dominique now reads at an eighth-grade level but is also enjoying college-level books.
More than 20 percent of adults in San Diego County read at the lowest level of literacy, and most of them are fluent in English. On this International Literacy Day, as the San Diego Council on Literacy celebrates its 25th anniversary, this is a good time to remind the San Diego community about the importance of literacy and its impact on individual lives, families, communities and indeed, the nation.
More assistance for literacy students and programs would translate into parents being better equipped to help their children with their schoolwork and employees being better prepared to meet the informational needs of an increasingly service-oriented economy. It would also result in residents being better able to critically read and interpret the social and political issues of our time and to participate with a stronger knowledge base in the local community, thus contributing greater vigor to our home, San Diego.
Literacy programs alone are not the solution. If we want our children to succeed in school, dropout rates to decrease, more children from low-income families to go to college, health care costs to decrease and health care quality to increase, better parenting, a reduction in crime and an increase in employability, we need communitywide investments in greater literacy.
As Dominique discovered, he was not alone. And, as Dominique has proved, our investments are making a world of difference. The “people’s campaign” requires people. We invite you, encourage you, to join the San Diego Council on Literacy in going to the core of so many of our community challenges through the power of literacy.
Cruz is chief executive officer of the San Diego Council on Literacy. Demetrion is an adjunct instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University.