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McCallum: The Value Of Literacy

While awaiting the inauguration of a new president who admits he’s never read a presidential biography and hasn’t the time or interest to read anything more complex than popular magazines, I’ve been feeling anxious about what this might signal about the future of reading - historically one of America’s favorite pastimes. And while thinking about the power of the spoken and written word, I’ve been shaken to my boots by this new era of Tweets with little regard for fact-based civil discourse.

Then I heard that Jan Steinbauer, Director of Literacy Programs for the Vermont Humanities Council, has retired, and that reminded me of a collaboration I began with the Council back in two thousand and six, as an educator at Vermont’s high security prison for men.

Funding was provided for me to team up with a visiting writer for what became a five-year series of reading and writing workshops. Men who had little experience expressing themselves on paper eagerly signed up for classes in memoir and poetry - and even one that used the form of letter writing as a path to self-expression. Most people don’t realize that in this era of email, Twitter and Instagram, prison inmates without internet access are the last hold-out in the art of putting pen to paper.

I still have copies of the work these hardboiled men labored so diligently to turn into printed anthologies. Their published collections with titles like Poems From Inside and Writing Your Life were mailed to friends and family; proud achievements especially for those who’d never earned high school diplomas.

At the end of one popular session on poetry writing we held a reading for invited family, staff, inmates and the press in the prison visiting room - a hard edged concrete block space that was transformed by the power of the men’s voices as they read their poems aloud, hands shaking, into the microphone.

In her retirement letter, Jan Steinbauer wrote that “Literacy and education is not a cure-all, but it is one way to address the issues of poverty, equity and justice.” And I realized that in a new world order that rewards instant push back and swagger over carefully weighed facts and thoughtfully chosen words, literacy and artful expression can still provide a path.

And I know this to be true, because I’ve seen it happen.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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