Danny Heitman: At Random: Building world where more can read

I stopped by the bakery the other day to get a couple of cakes for my friends Bill and Gary, who were retiring after many years of editing newspaper copy.

To salute their service, I asked the clerk behind the counter to write “Well Done” in colored icing across each cake. As she slowly scribbled my request on a notepad, I could see that she was having a hard time spelling the two simple words that I wanted for my message of congratulations.

We muddled through an awkward moment as I gently coached her through the task at hand. Long after I left the bakery and arrived at the office, my moment at the sales counter continued to haunt me.

According to various estimates, about a fourth of Louisiana’s residents are functionally illiterate. These literacy-challenged people might be able to read a bit, although not well enough to really thrive very easily in the world of work and citizenship. Illiteracy also robs its sufferers of one of the world’s greatest pleasures, the ability to enjoy a book, newspaper or magazine.

I was struck by the irony of buying cakes for two colleagues who had devoted their careers to wordsmithing, then having the cakes prepared by a woman for whom the written word is an obstacle, not an opportunity. The contradiction reminded me that readers and nonreaders might live as neighbors, yet inhabit vastly different worlds. We have to do a better job of bridging those worlds, and that must mean teaching more people how to read well.

As a writer, I have deeply selfish reasons to worry about living in a community where a quarter of my fellow residents cannot easily read the English language. A writer’s readers are his customers, and illiteracy limits my market.

A day that had started at the bakery concluded at an evening banquet of my local Altrusa Club, a coincidence that also reminded me of the power of literacy to change lives for the better. Through its many chapters around the world, Altrusa supports literacy programs as a primary public service mission. I’d been invited to share a meal with my neighborhood Altrusans and talk about my work.

Not surprisingly for a group that’s so committed to literacy, the table conversation quickly turned to the joy of words. Members eagerly traded book recommendations, and a lady near me recounted her enthusiasm for Scrabble.

Some south Louisiana literacy advocates have hit upon a good way to use the board game to boost reading skills in the region. The Adult Literacy Advocates 15th Annual Scrabble Challenge is Nov. 7.

The tournament benefits literacy programs, and more information is available at adultliteracyadvocates.org.

With any luck, these programs will help build a world in which more people will be able to read the words you’re seeing now.