“I knew I needed to be a part of the fight to eradicate illiteracy and support educational advocacy.”
I remember the line of coins and my mom tapping an encouraging finger on a dime. After an hour or so of sitting there, the seat cushion began to depress, and I felt as if I was only sitting on concrete. I was hot, frustrated, and looked away. “Sophie,” my mom’s voice echoed, “What’s this one?” My eyes ventured toward my father, pacing with his arms crossed behind the kitchen table, calculating something I couldn’t tell. “Sophie?” Her voice trailed. “I, um, I dunno– a penny?” I gulped. I knew it was wrong, followed by a sigh of disappointment from my father. I tried not to look at him. “No,” her voice replied. I was closing my eyes; I didn’t want to be there anymore. “They don’t have to tell me,” I thought. “I know I’m stupid.”
I remember that one thought, the straight line of coins, and the fingers tapping with encouragement– with hope. Throughout most of my life, it has been the same. My mom, with math homework or with reading, encouraged me. “Sophie,” she would plead, “you’re not trying hard enough. Pay attention.” I would have tutors throughout the majority of elementary school, along with my mom trying to help, always knowing that I had the potential to grow, to learn. And now, at a stage where, though I still have inherent gaps in my knowledge, I am ready to share my story.
I think back to this time often; the line of coins, many teachers thinking less of me, but above all, remaining thankful that I had the resources to overcome; people like me seldom do. When hearing other stories like mine, there remains a common theme; as a child, they didn’t learn as fast as their peers, were deemed “stupid,” and squared off into a box where they accepted their educational inferiority. Yet, with a rigorous work ethic and grueling hours of studying, they knew they could enhance their performance and rise above. And in such a way, this is my story exactly.
Throughout most of my elementary education, many teachers didn’t understand me. And though no one had ever blatantly told me I was “stupid” or an “idiot,” at least not the teachers, there remains a sense and knowing when they had given up on you– a frustration. I remember in the first grade my teacher had made all the students stand in a circle, each having to count by twos. “Two…” a student would sound “…four,” said the next. This continued until it got to me. After eight, I didn’t know the number and had to count on my fingers. The circle of children then had to restart and count again because of me, repeatedly, because I couldn’t count by twos. I remember my teacher grabbing my wrist and pulling me aside to sit, a sigh accompanying it. “She doesn’t have to tell me,” I thought, “I know I’m stupid.” Afterward, when my father picked me up from school, my teacher told him that I was years behind in math which worried him greatly, and I only felt inferior. Later on, in a different school, It was suggested that I should repeat the second grade. I moved schools again.
Though in little ways my story relates to illiteracy, those who struggle to read and write are exactly like me. People don’t know what it’s like to feel completely and wholly stupid, a feeling that affects the psyche so much. Hence, it discourages them from even learning or, in drastic difference, as motivation for personal growth but at the expense of learning out of happiness or genuine desire– only to grapple out of a rut for external affirmation.
I’m in my tenth school for continually having bad experiences with education, bullying, and lack of general friendship with peers. Each time I moved, I hoped there would be a better alternative, an understanding of others and teachers for my questions, my curiosity, and not the general disregard that I was “stupid.” And now, after searching and months of studying in isolation, I have come to a place where I can happily say I am accepted and encouraged intellectually. However, I will never forget how hard I had to fight for my place in the educational scheme and even to be deemed “smart.” My challenge for intelligence and filling in my gaps in learning has been integral to my identity, but it’s something that many don’t want to hear. Not only because people I have known for a little while don’t believe me, but as a society, we reject stories that discuss struggles on an issue we think is efficiently transformative. We are often given the metaphor as children that we are a sponge, constantly absorbing and consuming knowledge. But, just because another is psychologically wired to process information differently doesn’t make them inferior, yet we deem these people “slow.” Not all of us are sponges; not all of us can be. And, even among this scheme, in places that don’t have the funding to teach, and lack of knowledge lacking intellect has put swathes of people on the bottom end. Education, we also often hear, is a way out of poverty and class struggle.
Joining the Youth Ambassador Program
Though I tell a story of my grapple with American education, and many who have struggled with illiteracy feel the same way, it’s time to empower generations of adults who have illiteracy issues, children in rural locations, and globally, to accept educational setbacks, not as “stupidity” but merely a lacking skill. We must accept that lack of understanding is not a lack of intelligence. I and others will only stop once the misunderstood are heard.
I have been interested in the World Literacy Foundation for many years, waiting for my time to apply to the ambassador program– hopeful, nervous about even being accepted. I knew others, such as myself, and those with the privilege of education needed to be helped, to be heard. And though it was challenging completing the training, as I was doubly enrolled abroad for a summer program at the University of Oxford, I knew I needed to be a part of the fight to eradicate illiteracy and support educational advocacy. I was beyond delighted to be accepted.
Creating International Inquirer
For a while, I was at a loss about my final project for the ambassador program. That was until I befriended Alice. We had both been taking Creative Writing together at Oxford, with a passion for literature. Something, in my self-discovery, I had found I loved. We would both talked continually; about what she thought about this, what I thought about that, but we would often spend moments in silence together, even weeks. But, there was just a comfort in knowing we understood each other. And, when I suggested that we start a literary magazine together, an idea I had wanted to pursue for ages, she smiled and said, “yes.” We named it International Inquirer for the sake of drawing everyone globally to write artistically for the magazine’s theme, which often circles on global issues. International Inquirer is an accepting place for those of all writing abilities, thoughts, ideas, and values to share.
We understand that the world is rife with selectivity. Thus, Alice and I have started this literary magazine to uplift the world to know that their voice is valid, no matter who they are. In the years we run International Inquirer, we want to give back to the World Literacy Foundation in whatever ways we can– we will never stop advocating that all voices are heard, but more importantly, that all voices are supported. We are looking for new staff for the magazine to help support global voices and bring awareness to educational disparity.
I call on everyone with a similar story to mine, similar views, or a passion for community and help by joining and considering engaging with this blog post.
As I reflect on my educational journey and how far I’ve come, I know there will always be a part of me that feels inferior. However, the girl inside me that thought constantly, “I know I’m stupid,” has now seen that in starting International Inquirer and being a youth ambassador has led the frightened, shy student within me to say that “I am enough.” And as my mark here on Earth, through whatever capacity I can, I hope to tell others the same through the magazine Alice and I have founded to say to others worldwide, “you belong.”
Link to International Inquirer: https://www.international-inquirer.org/
Author: Sophie Johnston, US, 16 years old