Blogs > From The Bleacher Seats

A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Read this and weep

It was just a summer job for me; a minimum wage existence to partially fill both the time and the savings account during the summer while I was home from college.
It was at a shop that made parts for the auto industry. Truthfully, it was so long ago, I do not even recollect what kind of parts we made.
But one day I was heading to the garbage bin when I ran into an older guy who wasn’t part of the summer crew. He was a full-time employee and he was a welder.
“Hey pal, can you tell me what this says?” he asked, pointing to some writing on a nearby acetylene tank. The letters spelled `Empty.’
When I told him what was written, he nodded in affirmation. “That’s what I thought.”
I did not say anything, but I left quietly shaking my head. I was probably only 19 or 20 years old and all these years later, I still remember it vividly.
I felt bad for the guy. He obviously could not read and possibly not write. Did you know that in this country 63 million adults – 29 percent of the adult population – over age 16 don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at an eighth grade level?
I guess this really isn’t a sports story, not until you figure plenty of folks cannot even pick up a newspaper or click on a computer and competently read the words presented.
Can you imagine that? We take Twitter for granted. We take headlines for granted. We figure everyone can grasp everything on,,, and That is obviously not the case.
Same goes with reading the ingredients on the back of a box of Wheaties or on a pack of Ball Park Franks. What about the instructions for putting together a new train set late Christmas Eve or trying to adequately fill out a job application?
My mom was a teacher and later, a principal. She was a reading specialist and I remember her tutoring kids at our dining room table. When I was hardly more than an infant, I remember sitting on the edge of her bed every morning while she got ready to go to school and just spitting out strings of letters. Say an A, a B, a D and a Q.
“Is that a word?” I would ask.
No, she would patiently reply.
I would keep it up. Pouring out cup after cup of verbal alphabet soup. I’m sure it drove her crazy. But every once in a long while, I’d spit out a combination of letters in the proper order and mom would say “yes.”
I would be ecstatic.
While the written word was unchartered territory then, it was one I would conquer, just like most kids.
But not all kids. Apparently, not even all adults.
So I get into the newspaper business. I got into sports writing. I love chronicling the accomplishments of student-athletes. The kid who knocks down the three-point bucket at the buzzer. The runner who gets to the line in little more than a fleeting thought. Believe me; what you read in the newspaper is not Leo Tolstoy or even J.K. Rowling. It is all who, what, when, where, why and how come there are more than three syllables in the words that you write sometimes?
We keep it simple, but not simple enough. That is so, so sad.
What can we do to combat illiteracy?
The Oakland Literacy Council provides basic literacy and English language instruction to adults in order to facilitate lifelong learning, employment skills and personal well-being. Literate students are able to achieve both personal and educational goals. They can do things like vote, increase their workplace productivity, and pass on the gift of reading to their children. The most important benefit is the improvement in the overall quality of life. For more information, visit
Macomb Literacy Partners is a group of dedicated individuals responding to the needs of adults reading below a level of functional literacy. Such individuals have difficulty reading a newspaper, understanding simple directions on a prescription, taking a written test for their driver’s license, or are English as Second Language learners. Since 1984, Macomb Literacy Partners has helped thousands become better readers, writers, and speakers. For more information, visit
Being illiterate has to be a horribly empty feeling. Just like it said on the side of that acetylene tank all those years ago.