Did you know that 25 percent of San Antonians are illiterate?

About half of them are completely illiterate and the rest functionally illiterate, according to a 2010 report from the San Antonio Public Library. That’s nearly 187,000 people who may not be able to read or put together a proper sentence. San Antonio ranks next-to-last in the category of literate cities in Texas.

If the vast majority of its citizens struggles with reading, writing, and thinking critically, San Antonio is unlikely to become a creative center for intellectual nourishment – which it should be given how big, diverse, and fast-growing it is. Our youth should be challenged and mentored daily so they have a fighting chance to succeed in this world no matter what side of town they’re from.

In second grade, kids reach a critical point in their education and their futures are determined in a big way, according to the San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL). Second graders who can’t overcome reading challenges might be doomed to fail the rest of their education – specifically in math and science – resulting in their likelihood of dropping out of school.

This is why programs such as the SAYL’s Reading Buddy exist. This past school year was my first as a Reading Buddy. I work full-time, so I used my lunch hour to drive to a nearby elementary school and read to two at-risk children every Friday for one hour.

Some sessions were tougher than others. I learned a lot about the kids I worked with, but also about myself. For example, when one of my reading buddies struggled to pronounce the word “depended,” I had to stop and think, “How do I teach her how to say this word?” realizing that I take for granted the knowledge I already have. Looking back, it was an unforgettable experience: reading to kids who aren’t my own.

In the first session with my two reading buddies, I learned they want to grow up to be a science teacher and a zoologist, respectively. Each Friday when they saw me walk up to their class to retrieve them, their eyes gleamed. They were dying to tell me about their days, their adventures, and their families. One of the girls told me about her aunt, who had a crush on Justin Bieber, just before we read a story about the Gingerbread Man.

Every child in our city – and the country – deserves these kinds of interactions.

Where San Antonio’s illiteracy rate stands, it’s safe to say we’re cultivating an environment that doesn’t support education nor oils the machinery necessary to produce writers, doctors, engineers, and artists – in other words, plain thinkers.

If you’re curious about the monetary value we place on educators, the average salary for San Antonio public high school teachers ranges from $42,000 to $55,000, according to a recent ranking from Niche. That’s below the median San Antonio household income of $56,105.

A city whose citizens can’t read and that doesn’t support its educators is a city of the Dark Ages; in some ways and in some corners of San Antonio, that’s where we’ve been.

Consider this: local health experts who researched education, income, and health care in the San Antonio discovered that life expectancy for people living on the North Side is 20 years longer than for those on the South Side. Twenty years. One has to believe that quality of education is one of the root causes of that statistic.

In addition to educational and income disparity in San Antonio, there’s gentrification. I’m no economics expert, but it seems obvious that the success of the Pearl, the investment in downtown, and the revival of Southtown has encouraged land developers to continue buying property in the city. This means that some San Antonians have already sold their old homes and the land they sit on to make a quick buck. And with new shopping centers and high rises sprouting up, so too has the rent for some existing businesses.

When prices rise all around, it seems our local lower-income earners – those who are the least educated – get further displaced south and west, and people living south of the Alamo will continue dying 20 years sooner than their neighbors to the north. All the while, some of them will have never learned how to read.

Without continuous, engaged discussion with our policymakers on San Antonio’s poor track record on education, we’ll carry on not only as a city of bad readers, but as a city of non-readers.

One need only look at the statistics to see that we can do better.

When children read, they gain the potential to think creatively. With proper mentorship, they gain the ability to think for themselves. Only then do they have a fighting chance to stand up and stand out, even if they’re from an underprivileged school district.

We’re not a city of the future right now, though there are people working hard to change that every day. The least we can do, then, is read more to our children. Be their reading buddies. According to my experience, they love it.

Alex Salinas

Alex Salinas

Alex Z. Salinas lives in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of a full-length book of poetry, WARBLES. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from St. Mary’s University.