“Thousands of candles can be lighted from one single candle.” (Buddha)
Serving as treasurer on the board of Project Literacy of Greater Bergen County is a privilege and an honor for me. It is a position that enables me in some small capacity, to help give others the magnificent gift of literacy that will ensure a better future for them and their families. My candle, as it were, can light many candles.
I have always been a person who has been very aware of the power of words and reading. I’m a voracious reader as well as an author. As an educator for 32 years, I would always tell my students that the person who taught them to read, be it parent, grandparent, or teacher, gave them a priceless gift, a gift that they will use their entire lives. I firmly believe this and there’s a personal reason for my belief. My grandmother was never given the gift of learning to read and never knew how to even write her own name.
In my grandmother’s generation, it was considered unnecessary for girls to be educated beyond the workings and running of a home. Boys were the ones who would run family businesses or go out to work. They were the ones to whom all legal documents and bills were sent. According to the traditions of the times, male children were the only ones who were entitled to a legal education. Girls were not.
The adults in my family kept my grandmother’s illiteracy a secret because the thinking back then was that if you were illiterate, you were also stupid. The two words were wrongly used interchangeably by most people. Yet my grandmother was one of the most intelligent people that I ever knew. She spoke her native Italian as well as speaking very good English, switching from one to the other with graceful ease. She had an excellent vocabulary in both languages.
That she was able to learn English, without the benefit of being able to read a book, amazes me. When I majored in linguistics and world languages at college, I was fortunate to have a book with carefully marked reference pages to use for study. Her only ‘reference pages’ were in her mind.
It wasn’t until I was twelve-years-old that I learned my grandmother’s carefully kept secret. I was looking for my birth certificate which I needed for a summer tennis camp sign-up. My dad told me it was in a metal box in the hall closet and that he would get it for me later. But children have no patience and don’t like the word later so I wandered downstairs to get it myself.
There were many important papers in that box—I knew that. They were put in that box because it was fire-proof. I searched through these impressive looking papers, touching the raised seals of legal documents that made them official. I took them out one by one. Then I saw something that looked different. It was several pages thick and when I looked closer I saw that it was a deed, the deed to my grandparents’ house and property.
At the bottom of the last page were the words of ownership and spaces for signatures. But, while my grandfather had signed his name, Francesco Volpe, with a flourish, the space for my grandmother’s signature was simply marked with a large X and the words, ‘her mark’. Margherita Di Paola Volpe did not know how to sign her own name.
I remembered what I had learned in social studies class last year. We were told how the letter X on a document was as legally binding as a signature in the United States, as long as there were witnesses to the mark being made. The teacher had used the word illiterate, in a derogatory manner, to describe those people who “cannot read or write.” She had gone on to tell us how sad it must be for these “poor people”, how “ashamed” they must feel at having to hide “their illiteracy.” I went upstairs and got the dictionary and looked up the word illiteracy. Lacking education; from the Latin not + litteratus-lettered. The Latin derivation said it all for me. Nana simply was not “lettered.”
Next I looked up the word educated which was basically defined as a “systematic development or training of the mind through instruction or study.” In simpler words, it meant being taught. Attending school. Being tutored. Acquiring the skills to read and write. The skills were the only thing Nana was lacking, not intelligence. My social studies teacher had made it seem that a person lacking these skills was stupid. How wrong she was!
I kept my grandmother’s secret until I was a junior in high school. She felt badly that I knew but joked that now she didn’t have to pretend to read the newspaper when I came over to visit. I tried to teach her to read, but I think years of being made to feel ashamed of her ‘secret’ by society had made her feel that she was incapable of learning. My grandmother never did learn to read and write. A wonderful intelligent woman who, through no fault of her own, was made to feel inferior. It made me angry and sad.
I did manage, to her delight, to teach her to print her name. She took great pride in that small victory. It was her absolute joy that she was able to print her name with a meticulous hand on every grandchild’s birthday and holiday card.
My grandmother’s story lives on in her granddaughter. I became a teacher and then an author because of her. I firmly believe in literacy for all. It is a goal that must be achieved. There is no stigma, no shame, in illiteracy, just a temporary situation that can be resolved through the volunteers of non-profit organizations such as Project Literacy of Greater Bergen County. We can make small miracles happen.
If I could give a gift to everyone in the world, it would be to give them the incredibly liberating gift of reading. Everyone’s candle should be lit and ready to light another’s way to a better life.