“Can you help me write a letter?” the young man asked
It was one of those times, around 30 years ago, when I found myself serving time in one of Canada’s iron-bar hotels. Since I had absolutely no intentions of working for “The Man,” I decided I would help this young man with his letter.
He told me he was from northern Saskatchewan and only attended school “when it was available.” I didn’t understand what that meant until he started telling me his story. It was basically like my own. He grew up in a northern trap line, where his parents lived all year long.
There was no school and, like he said, he was able to attend classes only when they lived in a remote village. However, for him, it was a few days in class and the rest was helping his parents on the trap line. Unlike Clarence, my family moved back to my home reserve where I was able to attend school.
He wanted to write back to his daughter, who had sent him a letter. The letter was written as a 10-year-old would. It was honest and had questions.
“Dad, when are you coming home?” or “Will you still drink when you come home?” It was a sad letter, but I could tell Clarence was ready to look after his family.
I sat down with Clarence and he told me what he wanted to say. I wrote down everything he said and I crafted a letter for him. Instead of sending the letter, I asked him to re-write everything I wrote, which he did. I really wanted to see his writing skills.
Many times while he re-wrote his letter, he would look at mine and ask what this word or that word meant. I soon realized he was totally illiterate. I told him I wasn’t going to read and write all his letters, but if he wanted to learn how to read and write I would help him.
He barely knew his basic ABCs. I wondered how he gotten this far in life without at least knowing the basics of reading. He said he would look at the picture of the products when he went shopping. This, of course, caused all kinds of problems, like the time he purchased 20 pounds of sugar when he wanted 20 pounds of flour.
I can relate to this. One time I used Johnson’s baby lotion as shampoo, as I thought it was Johnson’s baby shampoo. Which brings up the question as to why the bottles are so much alike? The people at Johnson’s probably knew some yahoo like me would come along. On the other hand, my hair never shined so beautifully.
Clarence really wanted to learn. He spent most of his time practising. It was an amazing experience to see him come alive when he started to read the simplest of stories. After a while, he was reading probably at a Grade 6 level, and that seemed to grow day by day. He first printed his letters, but soon he was writing them. Time moved on and we both were eventually released back into society.
A couple of years later, I received a letter from Winnipeg. I could see by the return address it was from Clarence. He had formed a furniture company and had several people working for him. He went on to tell me all the good things that happened when he was able to read and comprehend the English language. For several years after that he would send me Christmas cards, all handwritten.
I wanted to share this story because Jan. 27 is Canada Family Literacy Day. This was formed in 1999 and was designed to raise awareness of the importance of reading and engaging in activities as a family. Even 15 minutes a day can improve a child’s — or adult’s — literacy skills dramatically. Several studies, including one by the federal government, found 24 per cent of Canadians cannot read or write. If people had the same desire to learn as Clarence, that percentage could one day fall to single digits. All it takes is giving a person a chance.