Emily’s Tale: Where government programs fail, humanity must step up

February 22, 2021 12:02 am

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“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

– President John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961.

Pardon me while I irritate some progressives.

Government spending and programs are not the only answer to some of the nation’s most persistent needs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t enact more federal relief for people who’ve been financially wrecked by no fault of their own during the coronavirus pandemic. We should, and soon! But target the spending to those whose livelihoods and economic security have been crushed, their families left homeless and queued in long lines outside food pantries. Put the cash where it’s needed, not with those who’ve fared well.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend — and mightily — on our crumbling national infrastructure, on America’s vulnerable electrical grid and information technology networks. The past month’s headlines prove the dire urgency of it and there is ready bipartisan concurrence on those needs, yet somehow nothing gets done.

And that is not to say that there is no role for local, state and, yes, federal governments to spend what is necessary to ensure that every child has an equal educational chance regardless of whether his or her school is in an affluent suburb, the gritty inner city or dirt-poor farm towns.

Government can do a lot to position its people to better their circumstances, but real change isn’t authored in legislative salons and spelled out in mind-numbing study commissions. It isn’t executed by auditors, consultants and mid-level administrators in corporate cubicles.

If government action were a panacea, the Post Office would be a model of punctuality and efficiency, the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination effort would be going swimmingly and Virginians who lost jobs by the thousands would not wait helplessly for months on end for backlogged unemployment benefits.

The most effective way to improve the lives of others is when individuals see a need and have the skills, initiative and the passion to embark on a simple, single-minded quest to make things better than they found them.

Take childhood literacy for example.

Consider that 43 million American adults can’t read, write or do basic math beyond the level of a third-grade student. That’s about one in five American adults who can’t achieve economic security and meaningfully contribute to the gross national product, according to a 2019 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics. The Annie E. Casey Foundation says that’s an important threshold because up to and through third grade, children are learning to read, but from fourth grade on, they’re reading to learn.

Illiteracy exists across the country, but it’s worse in areas of high poverty and joblessness, areas where the poor are often burdened additionally by a poor command of English. It’s also worse — as are so many societal problems — among minority populations. Minnesota and New Hampshire are routinely among the states with the best literacy rates. Immigrant-rich cities of California and Texas and fly-over country, particularly the neglected farm towns of the Deep South, suffer the most.

Aside from the crushing familial hopelessness of those trapped in generational illiteracy and poverty, note the costs we share as a country. Indigent health care in the United States resulting from low adult literacy levels costs as much as $238 billion a year, according to ProLiteracy, a nonprofit that is the nation’s largest adult literacy and education organization. The toll was even greater over the past year as the coronavirus afflicted the poor and uneducated hardest. Elevating the lower end of literacy for the U.S. adult population to just a sixth-grade reading level would produce an additional $2.2 trillion in wages earned annually, ProLiteracy estimates.

The key is early interdiction by third grade for children most at risk. It’s a heart-rending task requiring the patience of a saint, a Quixotic level of persistence, a lifelong love of reading, a keen and perceptive intellect and a caring heart.

Across the country, volunteers — many in their retirement years — step up and give of their time to teach strangers to read. Because they’re volunteers, it’s impossible to find a reliable headcount. ProLiteracy, which has been at it for more than 60 years, supports more than 1,000 programs in the United States and 35 nations worldwide, but many others contribute unpaid and informally, as Emily did.

In 2004, she was looking for a way to give back after her husband of 52 years died. So she volunteered to help the elementary school in her small town with what was needed most and what she knew best: letters that make words, words that make sentences, sentences that make paragraphs, stories and books.

She was the salutatorian of her tiny high school class in 1946 in an America flush with confidence after winning World War II and overcoming the Great Depression. College wasn’t in the cards, however, coming as she did from a family that treasured learning but was of limited financial means.

In her youth, Emily Peacock had indulged her muse as a columnist for the town’s weekly newspaper. She had previewed her literacy education acumen in the 1960s and ’70s as a substitute teacher, filling a variety of roles from first grade to high school. Reading — particularly in the early grades — was her sweet spot. She knew intuitively what reams of government data and university white papers would later distill to a statistical certainty: that reading proficiency by third grade, far more than any other factor, determined a student’s academic success or failure and, with it, his or her economic station in life.

And hers is a community with pressing needs.

In Lake County, Tennessee, literacy rates are among the lowest in the state and the rate of people living at or below the poverty level are among the highest, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. A state penitentiary is the dominant employer.

Teachers and administrators at the elementary school entrusted Emily with children in whom they saw great promise but who needed personal instruction to keep pace with classmates.

“Some of these children come from houses where nobody ever read to them. The only book in the house might be a phone book,” she once said. “But they’re so smart and they’re so sweet and all they need is a chance.”

She gave them that chance. One-by-one, she taught them to sound out vowels and consonants to form words, to string those words together into a clear thought — a sentence. One sentence after another after another until speed and comprehension increased and she got the only reward she sought — that moment when the light comes on in the eyes of a child who knows he or she can read and that dreams once off-limits are now reachable. Emily tracked them as they continued their studies, earned their high school diplomas and as some went off to college.

Word got around. Tennessee’s school boards association recognized her as the top volunteer educator in her region of rural western Tennessee. The Lake County Schools Alumni Association celebrated her achievements in childhood literacy at a community-wide dinner one night in October 2014.

The success these students achieved was no surprise, really. Emily knew her stuff. She had done the same for my brother and me around our kitchen table before putting us to bed nearly 60 years earlier.

Emily Peacock Lewis, a volunteer reading tutor and the author’s mother.

At a private memorial service for Emily Peacock Lewis two weeks ago, the pastor of the church in which we were raised read words written by my brother, Steve. He knew he could never finish reading his tribute to mom himself, so he entrusted his handwritten script to the pastor, and in her voice his words took wing.

They were raw but tender. They were genuine and filled with love for and pride in this determined woman who gave the best she had, asked little, and left countless lives in her corner of the world immeasurably better.

Such was her power with words. And if there’s a more fitting epitaph to a life well lived, I have yet to read it.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]