How can you find your inspiration if you can't even read?

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Image credit: flickr/m.snodgrass

The point of this blog is to explore, in whatever form I find it, the inspiration -- the spark, if you will – that makes someone choose to start (or continue) a life in IT. But the problem with thinking about inspiration and life choices is that it also makes me consider the path not taken.

Years ago, while researching a story on computer rehab programs in prisons, I met a young man who had been in prison – at that point – for about five years, since he was 18.

He gave me a tour of the computer program, explaining that computers were donated and how the inmates learned to fix and test them. He was a teacher because he’d become quite a geek since he’d gotten involved in the program.

I didn’t know how he’d ended up in prison. No one volunteers that information in that setting. He was good looking, polite, intelligent, and well mannered, though, so I was curious. I was unclear on the protocol around grilling him about his life choices. So I asked a vague question, “You seem very involved in this computer program. Want to tell me how it affects you personally?”

He looked at me hard for a few minutes. I’ve seen a few prison films. And I knew from the way the guards never got more than a foot away from me that this was a volatile thing, bringing a female reporter to this place to ask personal questions. So it was a tense few minutes.

But I think he was trying to keep his emotions in check. “If I’d had a computer when I was a teenager,” he said with intense, controlled grief. “I would have been home, in my room, goofing around on it the night I committed that crime.”

I did a little checking on him afterwards. He’d been an honor roll student in high school and was joyriding the night the crime happened. It was a crime where people died. So he was serving a life sentence.

That story still haunts me. I think about it when I worry about my kids spending too much time online. (Could be worse, right?) And I worry about how many more stories there are like that. A life that went that way instead of a better one. There were 1,571,013 Americans in prison in 2012, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a lot of people, representing a lot of spark moments that never happened.

But that’s just the worst of it. We live in an information age. To find work, or even use the Internet (let alone built it) you need to be functionally literate. But fourteen percent of American adults can’t read at all. Twenty-one percent can’t read beyond a fifth grade level.

And that’s not the only fail of our education system. One in four Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun, according to a survey done by the National Science Foundation.

How are any of those people going to decide to study math, science, engineering, or coding?

Illiteracy starts very young. Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Maybe the way to create a spark -- one that leads somewhere better -- is to teach a child to read? Or just read to a child so that they want to learn?

Oh, and if you have a computer gathering dust? Donate it.

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