Literacy is the Answer | John Trischitti | TEDxACU

Translator: Amanda Chu
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Cancer, heart disease, diabetes – these are considered some of the most
serious issues facing our planet today and justifiably so. According to the International Agency
[for Research on Cancer], over eight million people
are claimed each year due to cancer. The World Health Organization
reports that heart disease – the leading cause of death
worldwide annually – touches 17.3 million people each year. The WHO also reports that an estimated 422 million people
worldwide, including myself, live with diabetes. Do you know what affliction affects an estimated
one billion people across the globe, approximately 1/7
of the world’s entire population? Illiteracy. That is not to undermine the importance of funding and research
for these other afflictions. On the contrary, it’s to highlight the seriousness
and importance of illiteracy, and that if it was a health issue
would be deemed an epidemic, but unlike these other issues
that currently do not have cures, illiteracy does. Illiteracy is not a social
or societal or cultural defect; it’s the lack of ability to read. It’s a solvable problem. But what is illiteracy? How is it defined? There are many forms of literacy: computer literacy, health literacy,
financial literacy, and others. For the sake of today’s conversation, we’re going to talk about
what a bulk of the population thinks of when they hear the word “illiteracy” – the basic inability to understand
or produce written information. Those of us that make
our ways through life off of sight words, images,
just being able to sign our name, those folks are functionally illiterate. And as vaccines help to eliminate and stop
the spread of disease, literacy can help us eliminate, to stop the spread
of hunger, poverty, and crime. It is the tool necessary
to break those harsh social cycles. The data is telling and troublesome. Students who exit fourth grade
without being able to read proficiently have a 78% chance of not ever catching up. 90% of welfare recipients are
either high school dropouts or illiterate. 85% of individuals that interface
with a juvenile court system are either functionally illiterate
or don’t read with proficiency. No one factor can so drastically shape a person’s chance of success,
earning potential, health, and well-being while helping to break the cycle that leads to daily poverty
and struggle like literacy. There are countless examples of how literacy has impacted a life
or changed a community, but I’m going to share one of the ones
that I’m at least the most familiar with – my own. But first a quick survey. And for some, the questions
can feel personal, so if you choose not to participate,
there’s no judgment here. But how many of us when we were growing up were on some kind
of government assistance, whether that was food stamps
or Section 8 housing? How many of us came from a home
of either single parent or divorce? How many of us
when we were in grade school were on free or reduced lunch? The data tells us that about 82% of students that are eligible
for free and reduced lunch don’t read at proficiency, at grade level. Three out of four food stamp recipients
perform at the lowest literacy levels. I had all of these factors
in my childhood; in fact, I’m the least likely person
to be standing before you today as an authority on literacy
and education initiatives, seeing as how I barely
graduated high school. And you’re may be like “Whoa, T!
I just heard your intro. You were the Texas librarian of the year. You have a master’s degree. You frequently speak
on children’s literacy and literature. You’re articulate
and well-dressed and handsome.” (Laughter) See how many will get in there. My journey begins not far
from where you sit today – the booming metropolis of Lubbock Texas. That is neither handsome nor well-dressed. (Laughter) Were we all that bad in the ’90s
or was I just so off-base? And what is with
the suspenders and the belt? Where were my pants going that I was
so concerned that I needed both? (Laughter) That’s on a fade, thankfully. My mother, she grew up
in a small farming community southwest of Lubbock, called Meadow. She had a very stable upbringing,
my grandfather ran the cotton gin there. She had stability – three square meals
a day, a roof over her head. She graduated high school
but didn’t finish college, ended up marrying my father
and having me. I think trouble was always brewing
under the surface, and when I was seven,
my parents divorced and my father left. I didn’t see or hear from my father
from 1986 until his death, in 2007. My mother – God rest her soul,
she passed in 2014 – she did the best she could, but with no higher education,
it was difficult to be the breadwinner. So she was gone a lot, working, trying to keep a roof
over our head and food on the table. But with no siblings,
I was home alone a lot, and that’s where my struggles began. My grades began to suffer. I was passable, barely more. I acted out, was the class clown, which, after years of counseling, I know was just my way
of trying to get attention. I spent a lot of time
running with the wrong kind of crowd, doing things young men ought not do. I’ve got a lot of detention in study hall, but for me, staying after school
for detention in study hall was better than going home
to an empty house. And detention in study hall
happened to be in the school library. Now, I was an adequate reader, but it doesn’t help your street cred to be seen carrying the newest
Baby-Sitters Club or Goosebumps book. (Laughter) But the library was a safe,
comfortable environment, and that’s where my transformation began. I think we can all identify
at least one teacher or educator that had a great impact on our lives. For me, one of those was the librarian at Bowie
Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas – Miss Ray. Now while all of the other teachers were sending me to the office
or putting me in a corner – not that I blame them,
because I was a pill – Miss Ray engaged me in a meaningful way. She told me about this award for books where the children of Texas
got to vote on the winner. It was called the Texas Bluebonnet Award, and all you had to do to be eligible was read five of this list
of 20 books, and that was it. For me, the idea that I could help decide what the best children’s book
in Texas was just by reading was magical. Just five – of course I read all 20. I’m sitting in tutorials anyway. And while I’m sure Miss Ray would have preferred me to work
on my schoolwork and improve my grades, I was transfixed by the idea
of belonging to something, being a part of something. See, when I was reading, it didn’t matter that I was on food stamps
or that my father had abandoned me or that all my friends knew
I was on free lunch at school. It changed me and helped me to believe that my life had all the opportunity
that I was willing to take advantage of. Now I never did become a good student,
and I did barely graduate high school, but because of Miss Ray,
I had the foundational skill of reading that serves as a key
to unlock upward mobility for life. I don’t know where Miss Ray is now. I don’t know where she is
or what she’s doing, and I’ve never been able
to appropriately thank her, but I hope that my life in literacy
is suitable thanks. Traditional education is important, but reading is the foundation upon which
all other essential skills are built. I am an example of the transformative power
that literacy can have on your life and help to break the harsh social cycles
we sometimes find ourselves in. A third of all children born into poverty
will stay there through adulthood, but because of Miss Ray and many others
along the way that took an interest, I’m not a part of that statistic. All of this is why schools and libraries should be cathedrals,
beacons of light on the highest hill, proclaiming to all that here
is where you change your life, here is where meaningful,
impactful progress is made. Librarians and teachers should be lauded
for the work they’re doing – educating our children and trying
to make the world a better place through education. The investment in the intellectual
development of our children is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must have. The ability to read
is a fundamental human right. It’s like access to clean
drinking water or health care. Its impact is every day. 180 million children worldwide
will never darken the door of a school, but if they can read,
they stand a chance – a chance to make their lives better, a chance to make
their family lives better, a chance to impact their communities
or villages or cities. And when we’re talking about impact, the greatest impact
is a child’s access to books. Children that have books at home is a greater indicator of future success
than their parents’ education level. Middle-class-income households,
a child to book ratio’s about 1 to 13. In low-income areas, that changes, and the age-appropriate book
is one for every 300 children. So my challenge
for all of us today is this: We need to get books
into the hands of kids that will make a difference,
where it will have an impact. The next time you’re invited
to a birthday party, instead of taking a toy
that’s going to break in a week, take a book. Stick a book in the stocking. Support your local literacy initiatives. Support your local public library. I envision a world where children have access at home
to the same number of books that is at least their age. If every eight-year-old had access
to at least eight books at home, and every 13-year-old
had 13, and 17 had 17, can you imagine the impact
that that would have on their generation? And thereby future generations? The great Laura Bush – oh my, that is a handsome, my lovely wife on the left
and then the legend, and Mrs. Bush is there as well. (Laughter) The great Mrs. Bush, who is a librarian by profession
and a personal hero of mine, once said that children who read
learn two things: First, that reading is worthwhile, but second, that they are worthwhile. Literacy is important. Literacy matters. Literacy can make a difference. Whatever the question,
literacy is the answer. Thank you. (Applause)

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