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The 40% Problem
September 12, 2005

Right now, the “topic of the month” is hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

This “Off Topic” discussion probably falls into the “Obviously, But It Wouldn’t Happen Here” category. In reading a post somewhere recently, I latched onto the figures that Southern Louisiana had a 40% illiteracy rate. Horrible by any standard, yet actually the area is doing quite well under its many handicaps, as you will come to realize.

After my children “flew the coop” I had time available to help others in official local programs. I volunteered for the local night school dedicated to teaching illiterates how to read. Like almost any “program” there was orientation to go through. But allow me to digress a bit here for background about this area.

I live in the heart or center of New England. This area and north of here is considered “died-in-the-wool” Damn Yankee land. The older generations could put a Scot to shame in the rubbing two nickels together department. Frugality was the norm, although today it seems the exception. If you could pull the wool over a Damned Yankee’s eyes, you were held in high esteem. As a result, the social planners used Sullivan County as an experimental county.

My hometown of Claremont, is approximately in the center of the county and is legally a city; the largest community within a 50 miles radius. We are measured, weighed, and calculated many different ways, yet every one of these evaluations are hidden from the participants.

In fact, we are so important to the social engineers that we have CFR (Council on Foreign Relations- a Rockfeller Institute) representatives foisted upon us as City Managers, and School Superintendents.

As a back-up to some of these accusations I offer this: A full year and a half after a certain School Superintendent left the area, every week a hefty package of “papers” were shipped to her; I handled the packages, knew the person who brought them in for shipping, and recognized whom it was being shipped to. It seems strange that a “former” School Superintendent should be so interested in our school system to have a 1 inch to 2 inch packet of “something” from the local schools shipped to her every week. Don’t you too think it a bit unusual?

So, here “we” are an unadvertised showcase of education. We should be flattered.

Now back to the orientation night. At the time, mid 1980ies, Sullivan County had the dubious honor of having a 40% illiteracy rate. This is a died-in-the-wool 99% white population area; with a 40% ILLITERACY rate. Imagine that!

Prior to my generation, keeping a child out of school was a rarity except to help with the planting and some harvesting. In Maine, the school year had a vacation of 2 weeks during potato planting and a 3 week vacation during potato harvesting season; and it started when Mother Nature was ready, not an arbitrary date on the calendar. Other than events like this, farmers actually sacrificed needed labor to have their children in school, and many a child got “drug” to the woodshed who was not learning in school. In spite of that strong an education ethic in the area, within 3 generations we had sunk to 40% illiteracy. Horrors.

Now let me take you into the observer’s seat in the program to rectify this 40% problem. I was assigned a young man in his mid to late twenties, who had been in the program for three years. The program must have been part of a nationwide system, because it had well prepared lesson books and work books for the students. I tried to work with the young man with the prepared work book. He and I struck it off nicely, he liked me and I liked him. By the end of the evening, the results were dismal at best. The next week, I wandered around the Junior High School we were using, near our classroom, and nearby was a computer lab using the same identical (primitive by today’s standards) computer I had at home. I quickly set up a program for my student to use, and when the head warden wasn’t around, student and I went to the computer room. I had set up a phonics tutorial, something like teaching the AT family: bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, tat, vat. Then onto other families of words (by sounds).

The easy part was that this young man knew how to talk and use English, but he couldn’t read. Once he saw the words in sound families, zingo, he was off and running. Our enjoyable trip was quickly interrupted when the warden caught us. When the student was back in his seat in the proper room, Mrs. warden gave me a royal ass chewing. I could have ruined a computer and I wasn’t to touch one ever again. “Yes Mam.”

Once back with my student, he was full of questions. “What are we going to do without the computer?” Etc. etc. So, with pencil and paper I worked with him building more word families. Before ending the class I taught him how to construct the word families by himself. (Basically the vowels followed by the consonants, and all of these preceded by consonants.) The next night it was obvious that he had done his homework, and he proudly showed me his work. To say it accurately: This fellow was serious about wanting to learn! So, I continued working with him, and pointed out a few mistakes, which he quickly understood. The next week was week 4; my student greeted me with: “I have learned more with you in 3 weeks that in all the 3 years I’ve been here.” I felt a tap on my shoulder; it was Mrs. warden. She wanted me in her office. Seeing that I was refusing to use the supplied materials, I was summarily fired. (It was a volunteer job.) So much for results in learning how to read

Can you begin to see that the school systems in this area created the illiteracy, and then, via the supplied materials, these same illiterates were being prevented from really learning how to read?

So, you will find that hidden from your sight and knowledge is the fact that ALL of America has a 40% or greater illiteracy rate. With this knowledge at hand, I think you will agree with me that it is amazing that Southern Louisiana (and surrounding areas) have ONLY a 40% illiteracy rate. With all the hinderances and encumberances the area has, they are doing marvelously well.

Philip N. Ledoux

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