Sep. 8, 2010

Small Talk

by Eleanor Lerman

It is a mild day in the suburbs
Windy, a little gray. If there is
sunlight, it enters through the
kitchen window and spreads
itself, thin as a napkin, beside
the coffee cup, pie on a plate

What am I describing?
I am describing a dream
in which nobody has died

These are our mothers:
your mother and mine
It is an empty day; everyone
else is gone. Our mothers
are sitting in red chairs
that look like metal hearts
and they are smoking
Your mother is wearing
sandals and a skirt. My
mother is thinking about
dinner. The bread, the meat

Later, there will be
no reason to remember
this, so remember it
now: a safe day. Time
passes into dim history.

And we are their babies
sleeping in the folds of
the wind. Whatever our
chances, these are the
women. Such small talk
before life begins

"Small Talk" by Eleanor Lerman, from The Sensual World Re-emerges. © Sarabande Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1892 that an early version of the Pledge of Allegiance appeared in The Youth's Companion magazine. It read: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea. The novel begins, "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

It's the birthday of the writer Ann Beattie, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C., in 1947. She's the author of novels and short stories about Americans who came of age in the 1960s. Her first writings appeared in the early 1970s, when The New Yorker began accepting her short stories.

Today is International Literacy Day. It's a day designated by the United Nations, and it was first celebrated in 1966. The point is to make sure that literacy remains a high priority on the agendas of each country — and for the whole world at large. UNESCO points out, "Today one in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women." Literacy campaigns are now often linked to women's rights movements.

There's a multi-million dollar literacy campaign taking place right now in central California, in Monterey County. It's a county that houses fancy beachside communities like Carmel-by-the-Sea, but at the beginning of this decade, one-fourth of adults in Monterey County were below a fourth-grade reading level. And so a big literacy campaign was organized, and in 2006 it was launched, funded by private charitable donors. There are free classes in reading, English, and math for adults all over the county — lots of classes, at lots of times, in lots of locations. The campaign's motto is "Literacy is essential to freedom, and change is essential to literacy." There are a number of similar community literacy campaigns around the United States.

One of the most successful literacy campaigns in the history of the world took place in 1961 in Cuba when 24 percent of the population was illiterate. By December of that same year, only 4 percent was. Today, the U.N. lists Cuba has as having the second-highest literacy rate in the world, after the country of Georgia. The United States ties for 21st place with Canada and several northern European countries.

About one million people were involved in the Cuban literacy campaign: 270,000 as teachers, and the rest as learners. It was a highly organized and regimented effort. There were 100,000 middle schoolers and high schoolers who left school for eight months to live in the countryside as volunteer teachers. In the cities, literate adults taught their illiterate neighbors in classes that took place after business hours. There was a group of 15,000 teachers called the "Fatherland or Death" brigade, who left their salaried professional jobs and went out to the countryside to teach.

The government provided the books, which tended to be about the history of the Revolution and all of its socialist ideals. One of the instructional texts was a pamphlet Fidel Castro had written while imprisoned after his first failed attempt at revolution; it's called History Will Absolve Me (1953).

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