One Room School Houses
I never liked driving at night to a place I'd never been before, so I left with lots of time to spare. It was a beautiful night - September, harvest time, combines in full swing, and a big moon coming up.
I arrived a little early, found my way to the basement of the eighty-year-old church, and sat quietly while the women finished the "new business" on their agenda. I watched and listened, trying to get a feel for the group, as they talked about the recent tornado in Edmonton and how they might be of help to those in need.
There were twelve women, the youngest perhaps forty-five, the oldest in her eighties. I noticed they were all wearing dresses and was grateful I had had the sense to wear one as well! The ladies seemed to lack a little humour, but they were involved and dedicated and I liked them immediately.
The business meeting was over. I was introduced and welcomed; the women were sitting in a semicircle with quiet expectancy.
I cheerfully started into my usual run-down of how the Camrose Adult Read and Write Program operates, talking about statistics and the problems of illiteracy in our society. They were listening, but I wasn't sure they were taking in what I was saying. Then one woman asked, "What exactly does illiterate mean?" It was a good question. I talked about "functional illiteracy," those with less than a grade nine education who are unable to function to their full potential in our print-oriented society, and so on. I looked to the woman who had asked the question. She was staring at me with a cold look that I wasn't sure how to interpret. She asked where and how I had come up with that definition.
I thought quickly to myself that she was probably a retired school teacher and I was being challenged because of my youth and lack of experience. I was mentally mounting a defense, when she turned to the other women and asked how far they had gone in school. The answers came... grade nine, grade six, grade eight, grade nine, one after another. Only the youngest women had gone to grade eleven (with some grade twelve credits). The oldest of the group said that she had gone to a one room country school in that very town seventy-five years ago, and never for a second thought of herself as illiterate. The others echoed their agreement. Not one of them felt they couldn't "function" in society. I was at a loss for words. They then went on to assure me that illiteracy may be a problem in Camrose, but certainly not in their community! Everyone was talking at once and I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.