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Brook Sexton
Honolulu, Hawaii

August 26, 2009

Dear President Obama:

The child walked across the living room as curious as could be. She found the rocking chair where her mother sang to her and read her stories. She found the couch where her father cuddled with her, and she found this strange wooden thing that chimed every day (a grandfather clock). She found this the most interesting thing and began to explore it with her hands. The texture was smooth, and there were rounded parts. As she explored this wonderful thing, she found tiny bumps. She was too little to know what they meant, but they were curious things, and she ran her fingers along them with great interest. Later in the day her mother called her to the bathroom for bath time. She took the child by the hand and showed her the metal of the tub where again tiny bumps were available to touch and explore. When she brushed her teeth, she found the little bumps on the sink, and when she played in the pots and pans cupboard or tried to open the refrigerator, the little bumps were always there. Her mom and dad ran her fingers over the bumps and said strange things like: “c-l-o-c-k, clock. This says clock, c-l-o-c-k.” As with any child, this young girl began to understand that these little bumps had a purpose--they were representations of the items around her house called words.

I look back at these very early experiences of my life and realize I don’t remember much about the process of learning to read. I learned gradually day by day and through the persistence of my parents, siblings, and teachers. Learning to read was no different for me from the way your children learned to read. It was a miracle as letters took shape, and those letters formed words that formed stories, much like the ones I had listened to for as long as I could remember. The only difference was that I was blind and read those miraculous words in Braille.

I don’t know what life would be like without the power of literacy and the ability to read. I have always loved reading. I read at least a book a week throughout elementary school (and still try to maintain that standard), and yet I could not get enough. Whenever I smelled a bookstore, I yearned to read every single book on the shelves. I often fantasized that in an ideal world everyone read Braille. In my fantasy I could walk into a bookstore and lose myself in the books. I could randomly pull a book off the shelf and start reading. If I didn’t like it, I could put it back and find another. If it was really good, I’d sit in the aisle for hours until my mother found me and told me it was time to go home. Reading allowed me to explore places I could never go and learn about people that lived different lives. More important, true literacy would be incomplete without the ability to write.

In preschool I learned to scribble in Braille and eventually how to form the letters and words. Again this process was no different from your children learning to write except that, instead of drawing lines, I punched dots. I was given a journal at the age of five and encouraged to write about my life. I doubt that my entries in that journal were much different from those of any other child of that age, and, as I grew, the entries became more complex and expressive. I shared my triumphs and woes in those journals. This love for writing has helped me communicate effectively in all aspects of my life. Again I had fantasies of producing handwritten notes to friends and receiving them in return. As a result I began teaching college roommates and friends Braille. Those treasured notes from friends remind me that I can be treated equally. Writing empowers me to share my dreams, perspectives, and ideals. It is a vehicle that connects my perspectives with the rest of the world.

In telling my story, I hope that you can learn the power of literacy and the enormous blessing it has been in my life. I am currently gainfully employed and living a full life, and I attribute much of my success and my ability to participate actively in society to literacy. I regularly meet blind adults and youth whose stories are drastically different from mine. They were not given the gift of literacy, and this has permeated every aspect of their lives. I sometimes find myself feeling guilty because of the fortunate circumstances of my childhood and opportunity to learn to read and write. Often this is followed by a burst of anger that our educational system teaches only one out of every ten blind children to read and write Braille. Finally, I realize that anger and guilt don’t solve the problem for future blind children, so I have dedicated much of my life to making certain that blind children across the country are given the priceless gift of literacy.

Brook Sexton