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Give the Gift of Literacy

Rich Egger

On December 2nd, the evening news droned as I was in the kitchen, making soup. Donald Trump's nasal reiteration that he stood by his hateful statement regarding barring all Muslims from the United States until our government had a concrete plan in place carried to the stove. 

Unbeknownst to me, my daughter had finished practicing her trombone, and now stood gape mouthed and trembling, facing the television. “What,” she sputtered. “That’s so hateful. This world! What will become of us?”

Over a simple meal, we all tried to comfort her, to explain Trump’s voice is just one of many, and citing examples to illustrate how small kindnesses accumulate into larger change. My 11 year old wasn’t having it. “There’s so much hurt. So much hate. What can I do about that? What can the four of us do?” I told her we can choose peace, even when it is really hard and even when we are hurting. Then, in an effort to restore us all, to give respite to us all, I said, “After dinner, we should all go to the library.” Her eyebrows rose hopefully. “Okay,” she said, “that sounds good.”

Let’s be honest friends—it has been a month of tragedy. Acts of terrorism, senseless deaths, global warming, 50 impending faculty layoffs at WIU as well as an unknown number of support staff cuts, no state budget in sight—the sorrowful list goes on and on. We are all looking for magic, for healing, for a sense of peace.

This year, I am struggling, as so many of you are, to get to beating heart of what really matters, not just at this time of year, but always. Not what I can buy and wrap up, but the intangibles as my mother calls them—connection, the gift of time, the gift of self. For many this season, the intangibles will be the only gifts they can afford to give. In that moment at my dinner table, attempting to comfort my daughter, my family and myself, it occurred to me that the Macomb Public Library has always been a place of magic, healing, and peace for me ever since I was a child.

Credit Rich Egger
Barbara Harroun

My mother took us to the library weekly.  At the library, the children’s librarian, Ms. Margaret Sowers always greeted me by name, often suggested books, and would read us books aloud during story time. Ms. Margaret has been the kind and caring heart of the children’s library for 40 years. My own children adore her, and they adore reading in part because her.  Ms. Margaret retired last month, but I celebrate her as a bright beacon to light our way.  She has positively impacted our community by helping our children grow as readers—by filling both their hearts and their minds.  Reading opens up whole worlds, acts as a time machine and a teleporter, and allows us to understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others. Reading enables us to ask questions and find answers. Reading reveals to me, again and again, what it means to be human. It reminds me that for all of our differences, what binds us together, what we share as human beings is far, far greater.

If you can afford to give—both emotionally and financially -- I urge you to give the gift of literacy. Reading and writing, I tell my students, are transformative acts that can change the world in small and large ways. Help someone fall in love with reading. This year give friends and family the book you love best, and write a meaningful inscription on the inside cover. Support our local booksellers on the square. For so many, money is tight, but the library is always free. Give your kids a coupon for a weekly library afternoon or night, or for 30 minutes of reading and snuggling to be redeemed at their pleasure.  Watch how quickly and frequently they redeem them. Take them to the Little Free Library, right outside of the YMCA and made possible by WIU English Education students. Have them put a book in and have them take a new book home. Volunteer at the Audio Information Service reading newspapers, magazines, and even novels for the sight impaired. Send an Amazon gift card to the Knox County Mary Davis Home, so that their library can be replenished with new young adult literature. The 10 to 18 year olds housed there are only allowed to have one book in their cell, and for many of them, this is their first opportunity to find how reading can transport and transform them. If you have extra books, make a donation to our Macomb Chapter of Reading Reduces Recidivism so that prisoners have access to books. We’ll pick them up and pack them up, and arrange for transport to an Illinois Correctional Facility.

This year, I have decided I am not buying presents for family and friends. Instead, I am writing letters, articulating what each one means to me. Give those you love the unforgettable gift of your words, the gift of your gratitude, the gift of yourself. Use your words, and the words of others, to lift one another up and to light the way with warmth during these short, dark, and bitter winter days.

Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.