Last week I had to renew my driver's license. It expired on my birthday back in the middle of July, but I'm legal again. I went prepared to spend hours waiting. The last time I was there, about ten years ago as I usually renew it online, it really did take a long time. This time, however, some smart driver's license bureaucrat managed to streamline the process and I was in and out pretty quickly.
While I was waiting, a young woman sat down in the row of chairs behind me. She gently tapped me on the shoulder and said she needed my help to fill out her form. She was difficult to understand, but I finally grasped the fact that she could not read. I was stunned to run smack into illiteracy in the driver's license bureau. Once I ascertained that it was okay for me to fill out the form for her (it was a government document, so I wasn't sure) I started writing her name for her. Then they called me to the counter to have an awful picture made and my name changed to match my social security card. Another long story, but don't ever call your child by their middle name if you want them to make it through life without at least three file folders every where anyone keeps a file folder with names on it.
By the time I was done, the young lady who couldn't read had been called to the counter where the driver's bureau employee helped her fill out her form. I don't know how she was going to take the test. Do they read the driver's test to you if you can't read it yourself? How could she read road signs? They don't all have symbols, some have words.
I wish I could have talked more with her. I wonder how she manages to get through daily life. I know there are people who can't read, but I don't run into them very often. It made me realize again just how important literacy is. The image of that young woman whispering behind her hand that she needed help saddens me. It's an image that remains lodged in my mind. Maybe she will find her way into a story one day.
I hope, one day, her story includes reading.
Booker Prize Longlist
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