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Survival of the literate

Allen Murray is flipping through a book with blank pages. "Perception can feel like this if you're illiterate," said Murray, sitting in a former storage room at the Canada Games Centre.

Allen Murray is flipping through a book with blank pages.

“Perception can feel like this if you’re illiterate,” said Murray, sitting in a former storage room at the Canada Games Centre.

He starts flipping pages from the beginning again.

This time, black and white drawings of children appear.

“If you’re somewhat illiterate, it could look like this,” he said.

Finally, Murray fills the book with colour.

“If you’re disabled, you see the pictures, but you don’t see the colour,” he said. “Many times you miss the subtleties that literacy allows.”

Murray, 73, later admits he’s an amateur magician.

Walking around the soon-to-be-opened Family Literacy Centre, Murray points out how the colours on the walls are meant to lower blood pressure.

Most children’s toys are covered in high-strung yellows and reds, he said, the most hyperactive colours. A little flash and novelty is always good to gain a child’s attention, but most of the centre’s furniture and wall paint are in soft hues.

“It’s meant to induce storytelling,” he said.

The centre is a work-in-progress until its official opening on January 27, Family Literacy Day. But the Yukon Literacy Coalition will be holding talks and programs throughout the fall in the centre.

Murray is the coalition’s family literacy co-ordinator and it was his job to find a space for Yukon literacy projects. After shopping around for two months, the Canada Games Centre’s Art Manhire offered the old storage room.

The room was bare and awkward because of a wooden water pump box in the middle of it.

But now the walls are painted with giant wild mushrooms, First Nations symbols and a massive mural of a mountainous countryside with all the contours written in cursive.

And the wooden pump box is now a castle.

“It’s language and perception that make up the world,” said Murray, pointing to the way the words construct the image on the mural.

He picks up a exploding geodesic dome, which shrinks into a spiky ball when crushed and blooms into a metre-wide ball when expanded.

“It was easier for me to understand the development of a child as the release of tension,” said Murray, pulling on the ball and letting it grow.

“You’re a bit of a blob and then you get a little more understanding and then the world expands and expands again,” he said, holding the ball.

He stares at it - the child’s mind in full bloom.

“I realized that children, when they play, are playing not just to have fun, but they’re playing to engage with the world in terms of understanding perception, time and emotion,” said Murray, who has a master’s degree in early childhood education.

“That just fascinated me,” he said.

There is more than one form of literacy, he said. Literacy is psychological or perceptual access to something, whether it’s inside or outside the self.

So on top of reading, writing, numerical and computational literacy, Murray includes emotional and social literacy too.

If a child is cut off from being able to express a feeling within, or articulate something happening around them, the consequences can be dire.

Eighty per cent of people in jail are functionally illiterate, according to a 2007 publication from the Indigo Love Of Reading Foundation.

The situation is acute in the Yukon, where First Nation people have the most trouble with literacy.

Fifty per cent of adult First Nation people do not have the literacy skills to participate in training to become employable in the trades.

But a larger part of the Yukon population suffers from illiteracy too. A third of Yukoners are below a sufficient level of prose literacy for everyday life. And the number increases when you factor in more complex forms of literacy, like computer skills.

Part of the literacy centre’s goal is to catch problems at an early age, and the Learning Disability Association of the Yukon will hold programs in the room for just that.

There will also be courses for expecting parents to become more “literate” about their children and how best to read their offspring’s feelings and needs.

“At the core of all literacy is the desire to form relationships,” said Murray. “Human beings, cross-culturally, are a social creature.”

When that innate need is stunted, a child can develop a whole slew of psychological, emotional and even psychical issues, he said.

But it’s not just children who can feel either trapped or liberated because of their literacy level.

All cultures have different forms of literacy and, therefore, different ways of perceiving the world.

If we don’t preserve First Nations languages and knowledge, we lose a way of perceiving the world within and without us.

“Our survival may depend on alternate ways of looking at the Earth,” said Murray, who is a First Nation elder originally from northern Arizona who moved to the Yukon in 1988.

The centre is building a small stage where children can perform First Nation, francophone and anglophone storytelling.

Backdrops of an Old Crow settlement from thousands of years ago will be held up with Velcro and switched with others when a new story needs to be told.

But Murray and his colleagues at the coalition have a mounting challenge with the advent of faster and more connected forms of literacy.

The popularity of each successive generation of technology - from radio, television, the internet, Facebook and Twitter - grows exponentially.

That means every time a new technology comes around, there is less time for people to become literate in it before the next gadget arrives. And while there are populations that have no problems switching to a faster, more powerful communication or computing tool, there is the potential for more and more people to be left out.

In a world where the one-skill job for life seems archaic, literacy in as many forms as possible is a question of survival.

But what needs to change, from Murray’s perspective, is not what is learned by how we learn.

What we need to be are lifelong learners, who understand that learning a new “language” isn’t the exception but the rule.

That can be terrifying to many, especially those that already have a hard time with computers.

“There’s a thing with dream catchers that everything is connected to everything else,” said Murray, speaking at one of the coalition’s recent discussion groups held every second Thursday.

“Everything is an entry into everything else,” he said.

And, like a dream catcher, the highly connective forms of literacy offer a bigger challenge, but also an opportunity for a higher quality of life where learning is appreciated.

“If you can feel emotionally comfortable with that, you can realize your dreams in any way,” he said.

The Yukon Literacy Coalition will be hosting a talk by Andrew Robulack on whether computers are good for childhood learning at the Yukon Literacy Centre at noon on October 1.

Contact James Munson at