Literal and literacy

I made a mistake.

I think it’s important for adults to admit this as soon as they realize they’ve made a mistake, and so I am.

In Sunday’s column on Philadelphia’s enormous literacy problem, I quoted Judith Renyi, executive director of the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy, saying “We got a problem. We got a huge problem.”

Renyi, a beautifully spoken professional who hold a doctorate in English from Penn, did say that to get my attention, and I quoted her to get the readers’ attention

However, instead of being concerned about half of all Philadelphia adults lacking the necessary literacy skills to hold a family-sustaining job, one with benefits, decent pay, stability and room for advancement, many readers chose to focus on the quote and correct Renyi.

Instead of worrying about the 550,000 Philadelphians who lack literacy skills, readers chose to be literal and correct a quote, instead of caring and showing support, readers wrote and phoned to complain, an all-too-frequent tendency.

That’s not addressing the problem. So I apologize for publishing the quote.

A few readers also decided to place the blame on politics, the War on Poverty and its failings, or the Democratic party's half century control of the city, rather than register compassion or offer suggestions.

Other readers decided to engage in class warfare, that poverty is not their problem when the middle class is struggling and their parents made them stay in school.

And some readers decided to blame parents for not doing more for their children.

Can we stop the blame, the corrections, the lack of concern? Can we figure out how to fix this enormous problem that, if uncorrected, will keep Philadelphia mired in poverty and wedded to expensive social services, police and prisons? We need more literate, tax-paying citizens contributing to city, state and federal coffers, rather than depleting them, while raising the standard of living here for us all.

Teenagers don’t always think clearly. They mimic their peers. They may drop out because they see so few people in their neighborhoods holding decent jobs, or too many neighbors getting shot. They drop out because their parents and grandparents did, and they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions though teachers and parents try to teach children the true value of education.

However, most adults know better. They know they need the skills, and they’re motivated to correct their past actions.

They need encouragement, support and volunteers because their lives have been much harder than ours, and they’ve been discouraged too many times. It isn't always easy to admit mistakes, or what you're lacking, or to tell people that you read at a fifth-grade level, have trouble doing basic math and don't know how to operate a computer.

So, let me correct myself, and pay proper homage to the hard work being done by Renyi and so many other civic-minded people.

 We have a problem. We have a huge problem.

 ---Karen Heller