It was the first time in my life that I realized I couldn’t read. And it was scary.
When I was president-elect of the Pocatello Club, they sponsored my costs to attend that year’s Rotary International convention in Copenhagen. I’d traveled a bit internationally, so I was not too concerned about language, getting around, etc. English is the official language of Rotary International, so I knew all I had to do was catch the shuttle busses to the convention center and everything would be fine
And it was….until that beautiful Copenhagen afternoon when I decided I would rent a bicycle from the hotel and join the seemingly millions of bicyclist moving around the city. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the flow of the bike traffic, and totally enjoyed seeing parts of the city and watching the citizens of Copenhagen peddle their bikes around with such ease.
At one point, I was approaching a crossroads, and realized that I didn’t know where I was or how to get back to my hotel. To my relief, on the corner I found a tall pole with dozens of signs and arrows providing direction to different parts of the city. However, when I got close enough to read them, I discovered none of them were in English.
It was one of my Rotary moments: Here I was at a Rotary International gathering, an organization that champions literacy around the world, and I was in a spot where I was absolutely illiterate. Once the irony of the moment passed, I felt a sense of panic begin in my stomach and move its way up.
First, I tried to look brave and unaffected. I rode a bit one way, and realized I had not been there. I tried another way, then another, then another. I was lost, and realized my stopping, going, and turning around was disrupting the normal flow of the heavy bike traffic. I looked for friendly people who I might ask for directions…but when I finally found courage to ask, I discovered our language barrier.
I noticed two young Dutch girls coming my way on bicycles, obviously talking about and laughing at me. I must have looked rather pitiful, for they stopped, and in very broken English asked if they could help me. I spoke the name of the hotel, which only brought confused looks on their faces. I suddenly realized I had a plastic hotel key in my pocket with the name and address of the hotel printed on the sleeve. I pulled it out and gave it to the girls. In unison, they both said “Ah”, and began to tell me, in Dutch, how to get there. My confused face must have affected them, because they gave me back my key, and invited me to follow them. Within 20 minutes I was back at the hotel, and the two girls were still laughing at me as they peddled away.
I didn’t mind them laughing at me, because I was safely back at my hotel. But I wondered what it would be like to be illiterate, and helpless, and to be laughed at. I wondered if illiterate people try to look brave and unaffected like I did, but live with a constant sense of embarrassment or panic in new or strange situations. I wondered if they, like me, felt fear and frustration when they find themselves in a society of rules, directions, and regulations, with absolutely no sense of what they all mean.
Oh Lord, let us, as Rotarians, be instruments of your peace. Where there is despair, let us, as Rotarians, deliver hope. Where there is hatred; let us, as Rotarian, sow love. And where there is darkness; in spirit, in literacy, or understanding, let us, as Rotarians, be the light.
Let us Light up Rotary through Literacy.