Open Letter To An Illiterate Young Man

I’d love to say it’s my hope to see you again, I really would. But what would I say to you? We’re miles apart in age and perception. And somehow, since you seem to frequent the same neighborhood where I work, I’m sure our paths will again cross, but I’ll be too single-minded in my commute to notice you, and you’ll probably be too busy with your friends to see me at all. So let me say that my greatest hope is that one day someone will read this letter to you.

Even better: one day, someone will teach you to read so you can read this yourself and write me back.

It was only by chance that I met you. I was out doing field work with a colleague, and you were hanging out at the same Starbucks with your friends, taking a break—you’d tell me later—from being hassled by the cops.

It was my colleague who suggested I approach you for our user study. She pointed at you and I knew you were not right for our purposes. I couldn’t exactly explain this to her, since I couldn’t explain it to myself. If only our previous target, an older, gentler-looking black man, would have put aside his knitting and joined us.

At any rate, I put aside my reservations and approached you. You seemed to have nothing better to do, so we gave it a try. I asked you the questions, and you did your best to answer them, given your surprisingly limited experience in an age of information that is older than yourself. We both did our best to muddle through those awkward moments.

But our real moment was yet to come. I asked you to read and interpret a simple paragraph. You couldn’t. After an uncomfortable pause, you finally asked me to read it to you. The look on my face must have been interesting. I’ll tell you how I felt, with this revelation. I felt like the victim of a vast and tragic misunderstanding.

But this isn’t about me. This is about you. You apparently never learned to read. You don’t even go to school. I understand you have better things to do. During my interview with you, I came to understand that you—after a fashion—aspire to be a street soldier. But what do you fight for? What will you die for?

When my father was fifteen, he’d already been wounded in combat, the first of two times. Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force had taught him to read and write, before sending him into the searchlight-shocked, flak-flecked night skies of Europe to bomb cities. When I was fifteen, I was that old warhorse’s worst nightmare, a disaffected, rebellious, spoiled teenager, fighting only for the right to loaf on his couch and do nothing. How different we were, he and I. Somehow, against all odds, though, I eventually became a man. How different we are, you and I.

But we’re also the same, so you’d know what I mean when I say we can meet the same end. This has been proven by the sickening statistics of our ignorant city and our cold world. The tragedy is that I feel you do not fully understand this.

So it’s you I feel sorry for, because I have no children. From where I stand, the bigotry of low expectations isn’t as soft as our president (I’ll assume you know all about him) says. Instead, it’s sharp, hard, cruel, and it threatens to cut you and your future children off from the Great Leap Forward that propels this wonderful country into this new century. What can we do to change this?

I’m still astonished at how well I held my shit together. Looking back, what else was I to do? I was with a colleague, who I like and respect very much. I had to be a professional. But still, nothing I could have done could have brought you into the open world of learned men. Nothing. I wanted to lose my shit at that point, but exactly how? That was my choice at that moment: how exactly shall I melt down? Would a curmudgeonly Cosby-esque reaction have given you your literacy? Would an open Obama-style plea have made you remember where you misplaced your free American education? Would a long hard Diddy-style look at my pay stub have helped you see the economic disparity that is your reality? No. Greater men, as I’ve noted, have already tried. You’re in a slow-motion damnation, and any salvation you may have will have to happen at that same velocity.

So I did nothing. I read to you, wishing I could stop the world for an hour to explain to you everything that I’m writing now.