Have Seen The (Possible) Future . . .

. . . and it looks none too pretty.

Allow me to explain.

As I’m writing this, I am on a two week business trip to Florida.  It’s hot.  It’s humid.  The highways are in the middle of a lot of construction.  I’m in a city that I know not at all, so I’m asking everyone for directions, going into unfamiliar stores to shop, and generally presenting myself as the typical clueless guy who is visiting from out of town.

Yesterday I went to the local supermarket to stock up on a few items to put in the kitchen in my hotel suite.  Bread.  Milk.  Cheese.  The usual.  I went wandering up and down the aisles with my list, crossing off as I went.

While I was perusing the cereals, wondering what combinations of grains and sugar would start my day right, a pleasant young woman dressed in standard Florida garb—shorts, a tee shirt, and sandals—asked me if I could help her.  She pointed to a box on the top shelf, and I took it down for her.  She looked at it and at me.

“Could you get that one too?”

Presuming she was engaged in a little comparison shopping and preoccupied with my own decisions, I brought down the box she indicated.  She looked at them both carefully, slowly turning the boxes in her hands while standing next to me.  I was ready to walk away with my own box of cereal when she gestured to me.

“Which one of these is Post Raisin Bran?”

I looked at her and at the boxes.  Both were raisin bran, one the national brand she was asking me about and the other the store variety.  The box containing the store variety was, of course, cleverly designed to look as much like the box containing the national brand as possible without infringing on any design copyrights.  The only way to tell them apart was to read the label on the box—and it was clear she could not.

I looked at her a little more closely.  I would guess she was probably around eighteen.  A bit of a tan.  A ponytail.  No obvious accent that might give her away as a non-native.  All in all, as typical an American as one might find.  While I was pointing out which box contained the brand she wanted, a young man came down the aisle pushing a shopping cart with a lovely little girl, no more than two years old, in the child seat.

“You got your stuff, hon?”

She flashed me a quick, embarrassed smile and went over to join the young man.  Husband or boyfriend—I don’t know.  She gave the delighted child in the shopping cart a kiss and they went on their way, leaving me to contemplate what had just happened.

The National Institute for Literacy’s most recent assessment of adult literacy ranked the United States 11th out of 19 countries surveyed overall.  Anyone who has been paying the least attention to the strikingly mediocre performance of too many of our public schools should not be surprised.  What is surprising to an educated professional who works with other educated professionals is to encounter the stark fact of illiteracy in one’s day-to-day life.  It’s not pretty to mull over either the limited life choices available to that young woman or the consequences her illiteracy may have for her beautiful little girl.  Time and time again it has been shown that parental involvement—particularly reading to a child—has a very powerful effect on that child’s educational attainment.  Not to be glib, but I had the sense of watching a wheel slowly and inexorably turning as I drove back to my hotel—my milk, bread, and cheese rapidly warming in the Tampa sun on the seat beside me.

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