From Survival to Thrival

On the road to everywhere
In the midst of the galaxy
I met a child
With eyes that smiled
Here’s what she said to me:
Yesterday I saw the moon!
But it wasn’t in the sky—
It was in a book,
It sounded round,
And the gold in my eye.
Yesterday I learned to read
To read and understand.
I never knew it possible
To hold the moon in my hands.
Yes, now I know it’s possible
To hold the moon in my hands.

The verse above has gone through many revisions since it was first penned for a literacy fundraiser more years ago now than I’d like to admit. A word here, a comma there, a syllable jiggled, a line jumped, another added. Distillation and clarification is never ending; inevitably parts will be tweaked the next time I revisit it.

But the essence remains the same: the moon is just a metaphor for the realm of endless possibilities opened up to those who have the capacity to understand and use both the written and spoken word. It is about lives being illuminated through the world of words. The more children there are who get to hold that moon, the more literate our country will become. The more literate a nation becomes, the better our chances are of moving individuals and society towards a state of OPTIMUM HEALTH AND WELL BEING. I call that thrival. There is no such word except in my notebooks but I dream of the day there is.

I am a poet. I deal in ideals. I want every child to be safe, loved, healthy, and have the chance to shine forth with gifts they were given so they feel their lives have a purpose and they realize their human potential. Again, call it thrival. To dismiss the wish as impossible is to dismiss hope for a better world. The key, and it’s one we all hold, is action. One way to work to ward that end is to ensure effective, accessible literacy education for all.

After twenty odd years as a writer, mother and literacy educator, I’ve seen firsthand the obstacles and heartache of adults who have not had positive early childhood experiences with the 3 R's. Jails are filled with a largely illiterate population. 'Drop outs' are often those who do not come easily to learning through the printed word. They are those who do not learn in an education system still largely set up set up as preparation for further academic studies. It is time to review, revise, and question a lot. Changes in programs and educational philosophy that better accomodate learning diversity and individual needs are taking place. There is much to be hopeful about.

Dr. Richard Goldbloom, who spearheaded the hugely successful Nova Scotia Read To Me program, believes early childhood literacy intitiatives are essential: good preventative medicine. See it as immunizationfighting the dis-ease of illiteracy, a condition some consider still at epidemic proportions in Canada.

It’s time to look at models such as this and make sure there is ongoing support as those children grow.

It is time to act and question.

It’s time for a national coalition dedicated childhood literacy.

To advocate, inform, research.

It’s time for a co-operative model to emerge which brings together all of us who want both survival and thrival for every Canadian child.

Pediatricians have a crucial role to play.

Paging Dr. Read and Dr. Write and Dr. OneTwoThree! Calling All the Blugs and the Snufflewogs, and those who understand language is everything we do.

Literacy is not just about skill development : reading and writing and speaking and numbering. It is about what we do with what we learn.

"Tell us a story with your mouth talking," I’d ask my father. And he would recite poetry or invite me to tell a tale with him.

"Sing me a song," I’d beseech my mother. She’d croon a tongue-tangled lipslippery ditty from the fifties. Over and overuntil I knew the words by heart and could sing along with her. Eventually, I would sing a slightly altered off key version.

On my own.

"The Blug in the Plug in the Tub!" my son exclaimed as the bathtub drained. And we wrote a poem.

I grew up in a house of words where by instinct my parents seemed to know that the world of story and the capacity to imagine were two of the greatest gifts they could give their children. We played with words and learned to have faith in our voices. And yes, a sense that the world could work.

Not every child is so fortunate.

As I revise this, bombs drop in the middle east. Words are no placebo for the powerlessness I feel in face of this. I can only wish for the survival of all those children.

So I ask that we pretend for moment that we have all children safe, loved, healthy. And I ask you to pretend there is a word called THRIVAL.

Literacy education is about making thrival a real word; not just one some poet invented and hoped for. How we achieve this and what literacy means is a complex and ongoing exploration that requires endless revisioning like the simple verse above. Simple does not equal easy. But it an exploration and a challenge which is the responsibility everyone interested in improving the quality of life for children.

It is about every child holding that moon.

Published in Canadian Pediatric Journal. Part of speech delivered at National Conference of Pediatricians) June 2006.