Detroit’s literacy problem: One who persisted

In February seven years ago, I wrote about a young woman who graduated from a Detroit high school without being able to read. As I see new stories about high school graduates who are functionally illiterate, it is clear the problem with adult literacy in Detroit – and other cities across the country – continues. It is why I work so hard to find ways for adults, especially parents, to learn to read. Parent literacy is an early childhood education issue.

Originally published 2/5/10 in the Detroit Free Press

Detroit teen graduated high school without being able to read

Amiya Olden, 22, graduated from Denby High School unable to read. She enrolled in literacy classes and now can read her diploma.
REGINA H. BOONE/Detroit Free Press

Amiya Olden remembers well the day she graduated from Denby High. She handed her diploma to her mother, Karen Olden, who read it to her.

“Then when someone asked me to read it, I could remember the things that she read, and I knew what I had to say,” recalled Amiya Olden, now 22.

Amiya could not read her own diploma.

But don’t feel sorry for her. Two summers ago, she took charge of her life when she walked into ProLiteracy Detroit in Midtown and signed up to improve her reading. Nineteen months ago, she was reading at a second-grade level; now she reads at a fifth-grade level. And she has no intention of stopping. It’s the first time Amiya Olden has loved learning.

“Back in elementary and middle school, in class, I would just be sitting there,” she said. “I’d just close the book or put it under the desk. I wouldn’t even try. I didn’t have a lot of confidence and a lot of motivation, someone to tell me: ‘You can!’ ”

She said she didn’t want to bother her mother, who encouraged her to keep trying but had no idea how bad her reading was. So she suffered alone.

After years of being promoted without understanding her classes, she learned to cope, to hide the problem.

And, every year, she got promoted.

Amiya Olden could have been a poster child for a reading crisis that affects nearly 2 million Michigan residents older than 16: They read below a sixth-grade level, sometimes way below, which makes it difficult to function, to find jobs and to improve their lives. A study released last year by the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth found that a stunning one out of three working-age Michigan adults don’t have the reading skills to get a family-sustaining job, that an estimated 44% read below a sixth-grade level and that 60% of students entering community colleges require remedial classes before they can start post-secondary work.

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What I didn’t know – and loved – about Cuba

HAVANA _ You don’t know a place until you’ve been to a place.

I didn’t know Cuba.

Now I know a little more. And I’ll never do justice to everything I saw and learned. But here’s a little: I was stunned by the cosmopolitan, the upscale, the wealth. I was stunned by the grand boulevards and mansions. I didn’t expect the museums and how much Havana appreciates and lovingly preserves its history through the care and nurturing of its oldest buildings, books, history – and art.

I was mostly stunned by how stunned I was. What did I think was happening in Havana? Did I expect to find extreme poverty on every corner, people begging for food? Did I really not expect the upscale restaurants where I dined every day?

And oh, the creativity!

I visited the gallery of Eduardo “Choco” Roca, who looks a little like the late actor Brock Peters, has a voice like James Earl Jones – and is brilliant. He uses crushed cans from beer, soda pop and other beverages to capture the lives and faces of Cuba. I’d never seen anything like it. The colors and vibrancy were magnificent, and he was so unassuming and matter-of-fact about his brilliance. Knowing there was no room on the walls of my home, I still purchased one of his works to remind me of that great visit. (Perhaps the bathroom?)

We dined at the El Aljibe palodar (one of many, many private restaurants in Havana), where the chicken that everyone raved about tasted like my grandmother’s- perfectly seasoned, kind-of-stewed, kind-of-baked with rice and beans.

We strolled through Fusterlandia, the wild, wacky and wonderful complex created by painter and
sculptor, José Fuster. He tiled his home, nearby homes and neighborhood businesses in a colorful burst of mosaic fun. (It reminded me of what Tyree Guyton did here in Detroit with the Heidelberg Project).

We drank a few mojitos at the Hotel Nacionale; it was the best mojito I’ve ever, ever, ever had.

We strolled Central Park, which was filled with tourists, schoolchildren, couples in love and was surrounded by the magnificent American cars from the 1950s and 60s that roll along every boulevard all day and night.

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Get thee behind me, 2016; I’m focusing on blessings!

There is only one way to say it: 2016 was a helluva year. And until this moment, I didn’t mean that in a good way.

Sometimes it snows in April, and it was a cold, hellish day when we got the news on April 21 that Prince had died. I didn’t feel the way I felt when Michael Jackson died seven years before. That day, I was sad but I was a journalist. I was standing at an airport gate, ready to board a plane, nearly missing a flight as I composed a column.

Last April, I was numb. Prince’s seeming immortality was neither Peter Pan-ish nor grounded in the belief that he would always be around. My mind and heart just couldn’t imagine a world without him in it. It was like I’d lost a family member.

Even as the accolades poured in from the rich and famous and talented, I recalled being at Paisley Park during the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Minneapolis the summer before. He had invited us out to party, and we did. And 10 journalists got a private audience with him. I wasn’t among them, but Kelley L. Carter put me there in her Buzzfeed story after the fact:

CHANHASSEN, Minnesota — The room was a bit too dark. Prince turned to a member of his staff and said, “Turn up the lights so the doves can see.”

By spring, we had no idea how much 2016 would kick our butts. Six weeks after Prince’s death, we lost The Greatest. It is impossible to fully explain the global impact that a young boxer who became so much more had on the world. I won’t try now. He was the subject of my first column. He will be the subject of my last.  But when I write it, I’ll tell you about when I first meet him in 1994, and the time I visited his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan before all the media came to call. His death rocked me to my core – until two days later when my mother, the most courageous woman I’ve ever known, joined him on another plane.She finally said goodbye after a life-long battle with multiple sclerosis. The disease won many battles, but she won the war.

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