The literacy bubble
“I should write my name here? First name last name?” The man asked, standing next to me by the cashier’s at a Cold Stone Creamery outlet. I looked at him puzzled, a little taken aback, preoccupied with trying to juggle a speedily-melting Founder’s Original sundae, several napkins, an overflowing purse, and an ATM card in my hands. I looked at him, a little annoyed, wondering if he was trying to con me, or “hit on” me (I don’t know when I became so jaded about humanity). His skin was dark, like my own, and I thought to myself, though he didn’t look Indian, he did look as if he was from the Indian subcontinent. He was wearing a faded red sweatshirt and loose, stonewashed jeans, and flashy yellow running shoes which had seen better days. I couldn’t place his accent, but it was strangely familiar.
The cashier held out her hand for my credit card, which I handed over. The man pushed a half-filled form towards me, and pointed to a section towards the bottom: “I write my name here? You see if it’s okay?” I didn’t understand why he was pushing the form towards me; what did he mean? My skepticism sharpened; I’ve fallen for a few schemes in my lifetime, and was in no mood to have history repeat itself. I leaned over and looked at the form, which appeared to be an employment application form, and had to squint to make sense of what first looked like a series of squiggles. He’d put everything down incorrectly; the references merely repeated his own name, the date was a string of alphabetic characters, and his address was illegible. I took a deep breath and tried to explain what he needed to do, and he just kept repeating his name, saying he needed the form filled out. My friends, who were standing beside me, were hurling questions at me at the same time, and the cashier handed me a receipt to sign. I hurriedly tried to explain the form to the man, but he was growing visibly frustrated, and my patience was wearing thin. The cashier cast an irritated glance at the man. I signed the receipt, then turned to the man, pointing out where he needed to write his address, insert references, sign, and finally, what the date meant. He filled it out with painstaking slowness, and as we looked at each other briefly, my heart went out to him. We both knew he needed the job but was most probably not going to get it. And he was going to be facing this hurdle many more times in his life, some in places where he would have no help. As he finished the form, I hurried out…I could not look him in the eye. I felt his eyes burning holes in my turned back…I was confronted with my own deep sense of failure.
I teach literacy, study it as a doctoral student at Cal. Most of my daily, lived experience is mediated by literacy. My emotions, my innermost thoughts, my familial and other relationships are mediated through it. It is the window into my soul, the opened doors of opportunity for me. But for all my mediations, meditations, and theorizations about/on literacy, how rare it is to encounter someone for whom literacy means so much; not the languid introspections of the soul, but that which must deny the angry pangs of hunger in a starving belly, or a warm jacket to keep out the cold. Growing up in India, I was constantly aware of the problems of “illiteracy”; there were subtle reminders in every walk of life, from the thumb print section in all forms right next to the signature box, the massive governmental billboards that exalted the positives of literacy, and spoke of how we as a country were plagued with “illiteracy,” to the very orality of our culture which allowed us to circumvent some of the problems of “illiteracy”…There, I expected “illiteracy,” it was everyday, I smelt it, tasted it often in the hot, muggy Indian air. However, in my academic and scholarly bubble at Cal, immersed in its theory, immersed in its practice, my laptop keyboard worn down from constant usage, my fingers exhausted from texting and typing, my eyes tired from reading, I see the world without through a haze, a haze of distance, and distortion. That ivory tower I never wanted to live in is suddenly home. I must make my way back.