Success Stories from the National Center for Family Literacy
What It's Like to Be Illiterate
Battling the Scourge of Illiteracy
By Byron Pitts
Literacy: “A Beautiful Present”
By Lisa Primiani
After a 12-hour day of taking measurements and sewing beads on bridal dresses, the last place Filomena Caruso felt like going was Flushing High School. Filomena knew it was crucial that she attended classes to learn the language in her new country, but she was exhausted. She just wanted to go home to the two bedroom apartment she shared with her parents and four younger brothers. If she was ever going to get a better job and out of the cramped apartment in Brooklyn, she knew she needed to learn to read.
That’s why Filomena sat through three hours of classes, four nights a week, in the summer of 1941. “I can still remember the colors of the walls in the classroom and how tired I would be after working all day, but I knew I had to go, I had to learn to read,” Filomena recollects to me in her heavy Italian accent. “What I also will never forget,” she says with a glimmer in her small, almond shaped eyes, “was the boy sitting behind me.”
Genesio was three years older than Filomena and also a recent Italian immigrant to the United States. He was tall, charismatic, and would pull on Filomena’s curly black-haired ponytail when they sat in class. Genesio and Filomena would pass notes written in Italian, and go dancing after class a few nights a week. Just as fast as their courtship progressed, it abruptly changed.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Filomena’s 18th birthday, Genesio was drafted into the US Army and sent to Adak, Alaska soon thereafter. “All of a sudden he was gone. The only thing we had were letters . We said that since we met learning to speak English, that we would only write to each other in English, not Italian,” Filomena explains. “Our love developed through learning the language.”
Seventy years later, my grandmother still has the letters that my grandfather wrote to her in the three and a half long years that they were apart during World War II. It is incredible to see the letters written in 1942 compared to the ones written in 1945. The sentences are longer, and the descriptions of what happened on a day-to-day basis grew more vivid with each letter. The letters are musty and fragile now, but they are a priceless testament of my grandparents love for each other and their love for learning. My grandfather passed away in the summer of 2007, but I am so lucky to have my grandmother who reminds me to never take education for granted. When I asked my grandmother what it was like before she was able to read, she answered, “I used to love to read on the farm in Italy. I would read about far away places, and it would be like vacation. But when I came here and couldn’t read books anymore, I felt like someone took away a beautiful present.”
It is so easy to take the gift of literacy for granted. My grandparents were fortunate that they were able to attend classes where they learned to read and write shortly after moving to the United States. After serving in the US Army during World War II, my grandfather went on to be a successful business owner, and my grandmother was involved in all sorts of women’s organizations for years.
Ultimately, my grandparents were able to be productive members of society because they were given the gift of literacy. I asked my grandmother if she knew of anyone that immigrated to the United States from Italy who never learned to read. She told me about my great grandmother, who would sign her name with a large “X” and couldn’t leave her house without company because she couldn’t read street signs.
She told another story of a young boy who worked on her family’s farm in Italy, but came to the United States and got involved with organized crime. “He was a good boy, not a bad bone in his body. I hated to see him do bad things. But when he came over, he never went to school like the rest of us, you see? It’s very hard to find a good job if you can’t read.”
If you are reading this article now, you have been given the gift that 1 in 4 people in the state of Alabama have not received. 70% of Alabama’s inmates are functionally illiterate, and 43% of functionally illiterate adults in Alabama live in poverty.
One inmate costs the state $20,000 to house per year, but it only costs $4800 per year to give someone an education, and the opportunity to succeed. Literacy effects all of us in one way or another, whether it’s a personal connection to someone who is illiterate or your tax money that is paying to house an inmate who may have not turned to crime if they only knew how to read. Literacy IS the Edge!
It only takes a few hours a week to impact someone’s life tremendously. You can give the gift of literacy by becoming a LITE volunteer today. If you are interested in volunteering or know someone who may need help, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lite.ua.edu.
Edit this page