Yunus Peer remembers the sting of apartheid in the early ‘70s when he was 13 years old and ranked the No. 2 tennis player among non-whites in South Africa. An Indian, he wanted to compete against all talented players his age, to swing the racket to the best of his ability across the court from any worthy opponent.
“My father Cassim desperately wanted to make it possible for me to continue with my tennis career,” he revealed. “Apartheid ended that ambition because a number of white coaches refused to train me. Every sphere of your life — schools, parks, beaches and public restrooms — was apportioned by skin color; separate and unequal.”
Today Peer is a full-time teacher at Presidential Candidate Barack Obama’s former school, Punahou School in Hawaii, as well as the Director of Teachers Without Borders, a grassroots organization that provides training and support to teachers in rural communities across the globe. On Sept. 19, Peer will give the keynote address at a Literacy Conference sponsored by Tome on the Range and the United World College in partnership with The Literacy Council of Northeastern New Mexico.
“The conference will focus on reading and literacy in the public schools,” explains conference organizer Brown Bear. “It takes place during September, which is National Literacy Month. Literacy in Las Vegas is a serious issue. We need to make it a cultural imperative to improve literacy in our town.”
New Mexico has a poor literacy record. It currently ranks 49th in the nation in terms of important literacy benchmarks for both children and adults. According to The New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, up to 46 percent of New Mexican adults are functionally illiterate, with the Northeast quadrant of the state carrying the most dire statistics.
The Literacy Council of Northeastern New Mexico, a newly formed non-profit corporation, is organized to promote literacy through projects and activities that involve and support individuals, parents, teachers, and the community at large, encourage people of all ages to read, and foster an appreciation of literacy as a means to personal enlightenment and enjoyment. The group plans to present a series of four community events beginning with the Literacy Conference, followed by “The Arts Celebrate Literacy” in November, a Literacy Fair in January, and Da de los Nios on the Plaza in April.
“The goal of the Literacy Conference is to try to present where we are now from a literacy point of view,” says Brown Bear. “We will have small discussion groups that will rotate through four areas, each headed by a person with some kind of literacy expertise.”
One of the discussion groups features Marten Griego, author of “Leaving the House of Tears.” Griego didn’t learn to read until he was in mid-life. His book talks about the experiences of being an adult who can’t read, about tricking and fooling people, about the shame and secret fears he kept hidden in his heart.
In addition to Griego, other presenters include international students from the UWC who will offer their experience as citizens of other countries, local educators, and Heather Heunermund, Director of the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy who will discuss the State of the State.
“Both East and West are represented with representatives from the two districts,” Brown Bear relays. “Everyone is invited to attend this free conference, but seating is extremely limited. Lunch and snacks are included in the program. Once you sign up to attend, you receive a schedule of events, including information on where to go and where to park.”
The conference begins Friday night with dinner followed by Yunus Peer’s address and a film, “Children of Heaven,” a sweet and simple family drama from Iran, in which two children invent an intricate plan to conceal the loss of a pair of shoes. Saturday’s schedule begins at 9 a.m. with a coffee Meet and Greet before the rotating discussions.
“We want to make clear that these groups are designed to be interactive as well as informative,” reminds Brown Bear. “All participants will rotate through all four sessions. It will be an incredible event.”
For clarification and other information, call Brown Bear at Tome on the Range, 454-9944.