GREAT BARRINGTON >> On August 1 of this year, the United States Constitution hit the Top Ten on Amazon's best seller list.
It was propelled to that spot by the emotional words of Khizr Khan, a first generation Muslim immigrant whose Army captain son, Humayun Khan, had been killed in the act of protecting his fellow soldiers in Iraq. During remarks delivered at the Democratic National Convention in Cleveland, Mr. Khan pulled a pocket-sized Constitution from his suit pocket, reverently holding it high to remind a national audience of the bedrock principles upon which our nation was founded.
That an immigrant from Pakistan was the one who awakened in so
many a desire to read, or reread, or just hold close the U.S. Constitution is no surprise. For many immigrants, the Constitution's promise of equal opportunity is not just an abstract principle; it is the reason they are here. One need only listen to the personal stories of immigrants who have made the Berkshires their home.
At the Literacy Network of South Berkshire (LitNet), an organization originally founded to teach English-speaking adults unable to read, but now servicing a primarily immigrant population, we hear those stories every day. These are men and women who, unlike many of us, are here not by accident of birth but because they have chosen to be here. They made that choice because they understand what it is that really does make America great: the promise and possibility of opportunity, no matter your social rank, ethnicity, religion, or place of birth.
Indeed, the proudest moment for many LitNet students — and their tutors — is when they take their oath of allegiance to the Constitution and are sworn in as U.S. citizens. It is not an easy path, even for those here "with papers."
The tests require both a solid understanding of the English language and U.S. civics. Candidates for U.S. citizenry must take an oral exam that asks questions such as: what are the first three words of the U.S. Constitution ("We the people"), and what are the four constitutional amendments that broadened the right to vote (in order of enactment, the 15th Amendment extending right to vote to all men, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude (1870); the 18th Amendment extending right to vote to women (1920); the 24th Amendment prohibiting the imposition of a poll tax (1964); and the 26th Amendment lowering voting age to 18 (1971).
How many of us could answer those same questions? It has become all too easy for us to forget what the Constitution says. Reading the provisions of our founding document is the way to cement our connection to our country's core principles.
A salute to tutors
The recent surge of sales of pocket-sized Constitutions is an optimistic sign. So too is the work of Literacy Network's volunteer tutors who for 25 years have worked to support those, both foreign and native-born, who aspire to literacy, and who work hard to achieve it. Literacy is the most fundamental of all prerequisites to a free and just society.
On this, the 25th anniversary of the Literacy Network, we salute our tutors and students. We depend on you to continue to lead the way.
Lucy Prashker is president, Literacy Network of South Berkshire, and managing partner of the law firm of Cain Hibbard & Myers PC.