Benjamin Morris: The Four Magic Words

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Benjamin Morris

“I forgot my glasses.” When’s the last time you heard a friend or family member say this? When they were asked to fill out a form, or look at a bus timetable, or find a number in the phone book? Next time you hear these four magic words, listen closely: nine times out of ten, they mean far more than meets the eye.

Here’s the thing: you’re reading this column right now, but in all likelihood, you know someone who can’t. You just may not realize it. Illiteracy among adults is rampant in our society, and particularly so in New Orleans, but thankfully, we can do something about it. Each of us.

Full disclosure first: I’m an occasional volunteer at the YMCA Adult Education Services (YES), helping them out with basic office tasks. But it’s also where I learned the extent of the problem that faces us. And the problem is massive: a 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 90 million adults in America read and do math at the two lowest levels, what they call “basic” and “below basic.” Here in Louisiana, the NAAL found that one in six adults reads at that lowest level, and here in New Orleans, over 60% of adults can’t read past an eighth-grade level.

One in six. Think about it: if you have a family of twelve adults, this means that on average, two of your relatives – your aunt, your cousin, even one of your parents – may be in need of some help. But the point is, you may not know it. According to Shannan Cvitanovic of YES, adults are particularly skilled at developing strategies to hide their lack of literacy, including pretending otherwise, or asking other people for help. She tells me she was once in Walgreens, when a middle-aged woman asked her advice on which birthday card to get her daughter – and handed Shannan, for inspection, a bereavement card, completely unaware of what it said.

It’s stories like these that plague us. If we can’t tell the difference between greeting cards, how can we read a newspaper, or fill out a job application, or punch a ballot – in short, engage in the most basic functions of our democracy? I remember once sitting in the YMCA office, just making copies, when the phone rang out of the blue. Shannan picked it up, and spent the next half hour persuading a young woman not to drop out of high school, a woman who was in tears because of the difficulty of her classwork, and the fear that she might fail before she had the opportunity to leave.

Thankfully, this young woman decided to stay in school, but these calls, and calls like them, come every day – which comes as no surprise, when the same study found that over 800,000 adults in Louisiana are in need of help. But the good news is that help is here: YES already maintains two facilities – in the New Orleans Public Library main branch on Loyola Avenue, and in Central City at Harmony Oaks on Washington Avenue – and is planning to open a new facility in September in New Orleans East, a neighborhood badly in need of social services. They’re also looking to start a literacy training program at the new Rosa Keller library, and are on the lookout for volunteers.

Those signs are encouraging across the city, but closer to home, encouragement starts with us. It may not be the easiest conversation, but if you know someone who’s struggling with reading or math, or even think you do, encourage them to take that step and call. You’ll know the best way to talk to them: whether they’re your friend, your family member, your coworker, or someone who sits next to you in a worship service. “Our students are heroes just for showing up,” the staff at the YMCA like to say. They’re right: it takes courage for the students to walk through that door, but it’s our responsibility to show them where it is.

The YES offices at the Loyola Avenue branch are open every weekday from 10-5, and at Central City from 9-1. They offer daily classes at all levels, all absolutely free: they’ll work with anyone who feels they need it. Progress is gradual, but it’s real. Four more magic words: give them a call. 504-596-3842, or the YMCA website.

Benjamin Morris is the author of Coronary, a poetry collection, and The Bella, a novella. Around town, he can be found catching music on Frenchmen, crawling the galleries on St Claude, playing soccer in City Park, or tending bar at the Sovereign Pub Uptown. His column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at

3 thoughts on “Benjamin Morris: The Four Magic Words

  1. It is a sad reality. And while this information should be shocking, I’m not entirely surprised. I’ve known college students that can’t form a cohesive essay yet somehow they are passing their classes. What’s worse is these are English majors, which does a huge disservice to the student.

  2. Sad statistics, sad cases,and one workable solution illuminated, Benjamin. The sadness extends beyond Louisiana, as you know…Thanks to you for pitching in. Thanks to Shannan for sensing the problem, and addressing it on the spot, and thanks and my own good wishes to the client contact who had the courage to call for Shannan’s help..
    How did the lady know whom to call? Please shine your literate light on communication solutions for those in the dark, unfriendly rooms of illteracy…

  3. Thank you for highlighting the great work that YES and Shannan are doing and for calling attention to the issue of illiteracy in New Orleans. I too have volunteered with YES and was so moved and impressed by the dedication of Shannan and the other staff members as well as the students who attend classes there. Like you, I did not previously realize how serious of an issue illiteracy is here (and in the US in general). This is definitely an issue that requires greater awareness and resources in order to properly give our citizens the help they need.

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