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The Suburbanite
  • Goshay: Slater changed the world one reader at a time

  • Any time I saw Thelma Slater, I would tell her that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Slater, who died recently at 92, was our community's most dedicated advocate for literacy.
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  • Any time I saw Thelma Slater, I would tell her that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Slater, who died recently at 92, was our community's most dedicated advocate for literacy.
    Of how many of us will it be said that the world is better because we passed through it?
    A co-founder of the Mayor's Commission on Literacy, Thelma Slater retired twice from education but couldn't stay that way. For nearly six decades, she taught hundreds of people how to read, and in doing so, she made Stark County a more hopeful place.
    It's hard to believe that in the most powerful and advanced nation on the planet, there are people who can't read. But an estimated 14 percent of American adults — 32 million — are illiterate, according to the National Institute of Literacy. Nineteen percent of high school graduates can't read their own diploma.
    UNCHANGED
    What's disturbing is that while our technological prowess is unmatched, our illiteracy rate hasn't shrunk since 2003.
    Thelma Slater surely knew this, yet she was undaunted in her mission.
    Not being able to read all but obliterates your chances for success in America. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 70 percent of prison inmates can't read above a fourth-grade level, and 85 percent of juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate.
    There's no such thing as coincidence. If we want to reduce crime and our 70-percent recidivism rate, let's stop pretending we're rehabilitating people. If most offenders acquired a true education with marketable skills, they'll be less likely to reoffend.
    We're going to spend the money either way, so why not use it to educate those who are willing to learn?
    It's hard to imagine how illiterate people can function in an increasingly complicated world where the United States now competes with nations that have learned — from us — that an educated populace is the key to social stability and economic security.
    TRANSFORMED
    So how did we get here?
    In his treatise "Every Man Able to Read," Rutgers University professor Jack Lynch reports that by 1776, 90 percent of white men and 48 percent of white women could read.
    Throughout our history, immigrants have known that education is a springboard. They have insisted that their American-born offspring attend school, which, unlike many places in the world, is free to those who attend.
    Because it was illegal for slaves to read, enslaved blacks pursued literacy at risk of their very lives — but did it anyway. Their grandchildren were fire-hosed and dog-bitten, all for a chance at a decent public school.
    For word people such as journalists, it's hard to remember a time when we couldn't read. Reading is as vital as breathing and our next heartbeat. But there are people who grew up in homes that didn't contain a single book, who never saw their folks reading anything except maybe a bill, who, for any number of reasons, missed out on discovering the joy and magic found in the written word.
    Page 2 of 2 - Thelma Slater didn't shirk from the challenge of illiteracy; she did something about it. Her legacy is the people who have been transformed through her work.
    Reach Charita at 330-580-8313.
    On Twitter: @cgoshayREP