How has literacy affected my life? Greatly.
Alana Oakes (formerly Bodnar), of Port Alberni, BC, was a finalist in our 2014 Literacy is Life contest. In her entry, she told us of her struggles through elementary and high school, and how being literate today has impacted her daily life. Here is her captivating story:
How has literacy impacted your life?
It was not until my late 20’s that I became, what is known to me, as literate. Growing up I knew I was not an academic; my spelling was atrocious, my handwriting was messy, my copying skills lacked and when it came to tests, I flunked. I followed my academic brother through grade school and was constantly told by teachers how he was able to do something that I could not. Educators also called me out when I was unable to spell a word or unable to look it up in the dictionary – I didn’t know how to spell it, how could I look it up? In elementary school, I would take out novels on library day. The titles were beyond my comprehension, but I took them out, not to read them, but to bring them back.
I needed to be good at something on library day, and I am proud to say, I never forgot to bring back my book on time. That was something the “smart” kids often forgot. My small elementary school had separated the gifted students from the stupid ones. In grade five there was an all-female classroom. I was not in it. It was full of the achievers. I was one of the five girls in the other grade five class. At first, I wondered why they split the class the way they did. I knew who was in the other class and I quickly figured it out. Maybe I was not that stupid after all. It turned out that my grade five teacher, Mrs. K, was my favorite teacher ever.
In junior high school, where many local elementary schools blended into one bigger school, I had the chance of a new beginning. I had been segregated and singled out in elementary school, this was my chance for a fresh start. Maybe the teachers here did not have my brother in their classes. Maybe they would not know him. He was in some advanced classes – classes with different teachers. I might have a clean start. I was wrong – so wrong. My English teacher, Mrs. D, knew my brother. She knew him so well that he was her Teacher’s Assistant that year. As he excelled, and I struggled to keep up, I was put in learning assistance. I was barely passing English. I was pulled from my PE class so I could have a class with learning assistance. One of the only classes in which I had the potential to excel, achieve a decent grade – and I was pulled out. Going into learning assistance was a joke. I was given assignments to work with on my own. I could not read what the assignment was. It was a lot of time wasted, sitting around with the under achievers – the smokers and kids who repeated grade after grade for handfuls of reasons that were not being explored by teachers.
Finally, I was tested. The result was that I had a learning disability. It was determined that when I had encephalitis in grade 5, it caused my learning disability. This was interesting to me, so I asked why I had difficulties before I was sick, in grades one, two, three, and four. They had no answers for me.
Surprisingly enough, I still had to take French. I hated French. To me, this meant I was now illiterate in two languages. My French teacher never spoke English, it was an emergent class – I was absolutely lost in the class.
I made it to high school with straight Cs. Panic set in. Until that point, unless you stood out or really failed, you were pushed through the grades, like I was. High school classes were where you could fail a single class. I became exceptional at faking looking busy, so that teachers would not bother me. I drew circles upon circles upon circles on many, many, many sheets of paper. I started wall paper collection on my locker of my circle art, something small I excelled at, and for which I was given positive attention.
While I wasted the days at school, I lugged my books home every day and sat with my mom after she got home from work and we worked on it together. I did not retain hardly any of the information. I failed test after test, but still managed to squeak by with my Cs. I was put in learning centre again. I used it as a spare. By this time, I had spent eleven years putting my time in, sitting in the desks, pretending to know what the heck the teacher was talking about. I told the learning centre teacher that I was in a different classroom and they bought it. In grade eleven, I realized that I was going to have to sit a provincial exam. Without passing this exam, I wouldn’t graduate. It became my goal to graduate. The irony of my being illiterate was something else, but I wanted to complete school. There had only been one other of my kin to graduate, a cousin. My smarty pants brother, who by this time joked about reading encyclopedias and waving his hand over books to absorb their information, had already quit school. It was my goal to graduate, and show everyone that I could.
It took most of my grade twelve year to get retested, as is required to get any sort of exam accommodation. I was tested and once again they said I had a learning disability, which was probably caused by the encephalitis. I kept quiet this time. My grade twelve English exam was five hours and was read to me. I passed. I received my grade twelve Dogwood certificate, and I could not even read what it said.
Graduation brought me into adulthood. I needed to get a job for the summer while I waited to go to college. What could I do that didn’t involve reading? The choices were limited. I managed to get a job at a convenience store. It was difficult to function. I did not want anyone to know my problem. I was embarrassed and frustrated. After about a month, the truth emerged. I had been trying to receive items and I was taking too long. I was scolded. Fear of being fired made me disclose my learning disability. They treated me like I was dying. I considered this, wondering if this is what it is like in the real world, outside of the school system. My disability was the talk of the family-owned business. Doing my best to ignore everyone’s glances and whispers, I did my job the best I could despite my illiteracy.
After a series of life changing events, I found myself confined, isolated, and bored. I asked a friend to bring me some Archie comics to read. I would look at the pictures and figure out the story. After about a month of this, I began to read the words – and they were making sense. I could not get enough Archie comics. I could read. So they were comics, big deal, I could read. I was excited and wanted to absorb more. From photocopying, dissecting, and paraphrasing each line to increase comprehension to getting books on audio, my reading slowly improved. I was reading children’s’ books to my kids and I was able to understand them. It was amazing. I tried to read a novel, Nancy Drew. I knew I missed some of it, but I was getting it. The entire Nancy Drew series became available to me, and I read and reread them. I was getting better, improving.
At just over forty, I still have difficulty reading and comprehending everything I read, but I’m still working on it. Helping with homework has taught me about World War I and World War II. I never knew anything about them before. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I could read like everybody else. Would I appreciate how fortunate I am to finally be able to read? Probably not. What is it like to not have something, know most people around you have it, you want it, but just can’t get it. Then one day – poof – there it is.
Literacy issues are important to me. I have sat on two literacy boards, taken tutor training and am currently working at a literacy centre. I have a connection to people who come in, I truly know what they have gone through; all of their difficulties, feelings, and trepidations. I want them to know that it is possible to learn if you truly want to and put your mind to it. I feel I encourage and inspire others. I’m not yet finished learning and there are too many things I need to discover. I overcame my illiteracy.
How has literacy impacted my life? Greatly.