By now many of you have had a chance to read One Mountain Away. If you haven’t, an important element of the novel involves Charlotte Hale, the principal character, who is looking back at her life. Charlotte isolates three things she did in the past that she wishes she could change, then she sets about making amends for each of them, doing something in each instance to help make up for the damage she caused.
Do you have situations in your past that you wish you could redo? If you answer no, I worry about you. Because I believe we all have those situations, and facing them and admitting we screwed up is an important part of being human. Of course dwelling on our mistakes isn’t particularly helpful unless doing so helps us find a way to ask forgiveness or take a step to fix the situation. If that’s impossible, than the next step is to head off a similar situation for somebody else.
I have more than a few things I wish I had done differently. But one of them has nagged at me since I wrote Somewhere Between Luck and Trust, the book which follows One Mountain Away, which will be at bookstores in June.
In Somewhere, Cristy Haviland, a major character, has never learned to read. This is not as uncommon as you might believe. Nearly a billion persons worldwide can’t sign their names or read a book. And two-thirds of them are women.
A few more chilling statistics? 85% of all juveniles who end up in juvenile court are functionally illiterate, as are 60% of prison inmates. 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients perform in the lowest 2 literacy levels.
Those numbers worry me, and I could go on and on. But I’m not writing this blog to tell you what a terrible toll illiteracy takes on our society. I’m here to tell you my own story.
Many years ago, just out of college, my husband and I served as Volunteers in Service to America, better known as VISTA. We were, for better of worse, dropped off in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas with no clear agenda, little training, and no skills. Basically we were told to end poverty.
There was a lot of poverty to “end” in the county where we were stationed, at that time the third poorest in the United States. There were few jobs, and the social welfare system was heavily stacked against anybody who needed it. I remember sitting in the office of the elementary school principal trying to convince him to accept funds for a school breakfast program. My plea was hopeless. He was against the school lunch program, too, and believed that any child who qualified should work to earn their meal. So the children we were trying to help were forced to clear and clean tables in order to put food in their bellies. This was supposed to teach them they couldn’t have something for nothing. Of course children, whose lunches were paid for by wealthier parents, weren’t working for what they got. But that distinction escaped him.
We spent a frustrating six months trying to do something, anything, to make a difference. We fell in love with the people we worked with, with the landscape, with the culture, but we knew we weren’t doing a single thing that mattered. So after considering and reconsidering, we terminated our stay and went on to other things.
Forgive us, okay? We were in our early twenties. Alone, frustrated, and idealistic we wanted to make big changes, and couldn’t see that the small ones were important, too.
One small difference I could have made all those years ago still haunts me.Visiting a woman on the road where we lived, I learned that she couldn’t read. After we talked I told her I would help her. Then, before we could start our lessons, I left.
This is one of my “Charlotte” moments, a moment I look back on with dismay. I had something important to do, and I backed away. I’ve wondered about this woman ever since, but particularly while writing Somewhere. She was bright, motivated, delightful. Did someone else step in to teach her to read? Or by backing away, did I miss my real chance to change a life?
I can’t go back to 1970, no matter how much I wish I could. But this week I’ll attend a teacher orientation meeting for our local literacy council. If all goes as I hope, in the fall I’ll be assigned a student, and in a small way I will honor the woman I didn’t help. I’ll help another.
It’s really never to late to make up for a mistake we’ve made. We may never be able to right the actual wrong, but like Charlotte Hale taught me, our past mistakes can guide us to new successes. We can always reach out. I hope to this next year.
Do you have a Charlotte moment you would like to share? We’re listening.