As I walk through this high school, the halls and classrooms are quiet and empty. The kids who normally fill these classrooms have gone home for the day, and soon adults of all ages will occupy these same classrooms with the hope of obtaining the education they did not receive years ago. Illiterate is a word often used for adults who have educational skills below a fourth grade level, and the word implies ignorance and lack of culture, so I prefer to use the term untutored or unlearned.
It’s Monday evening and the beginning of a new school semester. This is my 27th year as a tutor, instructor, and coordinator of adult basic education, and I am still overwhelmed by the number of unlearned adults seeking help at our adult learning centers.
While I sit here awaiting the arrival of the new adult students, I reflect on my experience with previous students. Reading is something that we (who are literate) take for granted, and not being able to read is something we cannot even imagine. I ask myself: how does a person spend half their lifetime not knowing how to read or write; how do they survive in a world where so much depends on this ability; how can you help these people?
The answers to my questions came to me while I volunteered as a reading tutor. Working one-on-one with different students, I acquired insight and understanding, and found I could identify and feel empathy with them; not because I lacked reading or verbal skills, but because of my writing skills. Writing instilled in me the same panic and shame that reading and writing instilled in them. For this reason we were able to establish strong lines of communication and trust. Through a great deal of interaction, I gained insight through their eyes and could feel what they were feeling.
We think of a handicapped person as one who is crippled, blind, deaf, without an arm or leg, etc. A person who cannot read is just as handicapped, they have a mind that is blind to the written word, and a spirit crippled by the stigma of illiteracy. This is just as burdensome and cumbersome as any crutch or wheelchair.
Handicapped adults come to our adult learning center every year for help; they want to shed these crutches that keep their minds from walking through the pages of written words; they want to reveal the dark secret and rid themselves of the stigma that has kept their spirits locked up. Contrary to what we believe, they are survivors. Most of them have learned the art of survival in the literate world, they have gone to great lengths to fine tune these skills, and some of them develop good listening and verbal skills. One man told me, “I became a great con artist. I memorized everything.” This was not the first time I had heard this.
The adult learning center services many students, and it is impossible for the teachers to give personal attention to all the students, but the center is fortunate enough to have a few volunteer reading tutors (what a blessing they are). The volunteers tutor 1-1/2 hours two evenings a week, and their only compensation is the reward of helping the unlearned student regardless of age, race, or sex.
As the year progresses I watch and observe the tutor and student relationship grow. The changes that start to occur in the student can be compared to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. As the students’ confidence and self-esteem grows, they slowly start to emerge into a beautiful butterfly. They shed their cumbersome cocoon, and learn to soar high and free to places they had only dreamed of before. What self-satisfaction this is for the tutor as well as myself, and I recall the words of Frank Laubach (the man who developed The Laubach Way of Reading Series for the adult illiterate), “Each one teach one.”
The center is getting busy as the first adults start to arrive, and I feel the presence of someone standing in the doorway. I look up and ask, “May I help you?” With their head and eyes down, they answer in a soft whisper, “I am here to learn how to read.” Another butterfly.