We change the world one person at a time. And, to my mind there’s no better way to change one person than to give them the gift of literacy. It is, after all, the mark of civilization. It’s one of the first things archeologists ask themselves when studying a culture: did they have writing?
Back in April, Natalie (my wife) and I were visiting the tiny Caribbean island of Bequia. (In case you’re wondering, it’s about nine miles south of St. Vincent, and about 90 miles due west of Barbados). On our third day we visited The Fig Tree for dinner, because its Friday Fish Fry is legendary on the island, we were told. Our server, Tiny, asked us if it was our first time on Bequia. When I said yes, it is, she dropped her pad on the table and threw her arms around me, saying “Welcome to Bequia”. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by a server before. Natalie received her hug, gracefully if a little reluctantly (she’s not normally a hugger).
It had been a long day. A lot of walking. A few beers. Natalie popped to the loo. While she was gone I wondered why there was a bookcase on the restaurant’s back wall, full of books. Mostly, from what I could see at a distance, YA and children’s books. When she got back to the table she said: “I wonder who Ms. Johnson is?”
“Why,” I asked.
“Because the bathroom walls are papered with notes from children, thanking her for helping them with their reading.”
We already knew there was a problem with literacy on Bequia, because before we arrived we’d contacted a couple of ex-pat Americans who had just set up an after-school teaching facility (Bequia Learning Centre) in Port Elizabeth (Bequia’s capital) to help kids graduate, so they could go to High School in St. Vincent. We’d spent a few hours one afternoon with the kids there chatting and handing over some supplies we’d bought with us from Canada. The kids were shy, the way kids everywhere once were around adults, but keen to learn. And grateful, so grateful, for the few simple boxes of pens, pencils and packets of stickers we’d brought with us.
Which got us thinking. We were planning to set up a writer’s retreat on Bequia, a plan which has since come to fruition. In our preliminary research we’d noticed that these retreats typically offer yoga, along with writing. Why not, we asked ourselves, offer something a little different? Why not give something back to the community we were visiting? And, if we had assembled a room full of writers, why not make it about literacy? Because if we could manage to touch these children’s lives with a few boxes of coloured pens and some bags of stickers, imagine what we might do with stories. Imagine what we might do if we helped them tell their own stories. How amazing would that be?