Michael Brown* was a frustrated young man who had a dream and a talent — he loved to cook. But Michael dropped out of school before he had developed enough skills to get the kind of job and life that he really wanted. When the time arrived for him to act on his dream, his past unpleasant experiences in school made Michael not want to enroll in classes that could have allowed him to earn a high school equivalency diploma, also known as a General Education Development Diploma (GED®).
Years passed by, and then one of Michael’s family members learned about the Literacy Volunteer Program and encouraged him to call. After meeting with the coordinator, Michael’s skill levels in reading, mathematics, and writing were tested. The results allowed the LVP coordinator to tailor Michael’s individualized learning package, helping him to define his goals and objectives. Together they created a path to a more satisfying and successful future. In less than a week, he was matched with a tutor, and they began meeting at the library.
Michael learned how to put his frustrations aside and concentrate on his dream. Every week he worked with his tutor. The lesson plans developed for Michael helped him polish his reading, mathematics, and writing skills. He was finally making progress toward his first short-term goal: to obtain a job as a cook in one of the local restaurants. Having a clearly-defined attainable goal made Michael work harder. His lessons also included information about how to improve his job application and interview techniques. After only three months of one-to-one tutoring, Michael secured a cooking position at the restaurant of his choice.
*This is a pseudonym to protect the learner’s identity.
Maria is a Mayan Indian woman from Guatemala who was brought to America as a child. Her native culture relied upon an oral-only language, so Maria had no experience with written symbols that represented sounds. For her, words had no particular direction and letters had no particular sounds associated with them.
“Almost from birth, Americans are taught to associate a sound with each shape, and that those shapes group together in a left-to-right order,” Maria’s tutor, Donna Delaney, says. “But if you come from an oral culture, letters don’t mean anything, they are just marks with no context, and no particular sound or meaning.”
Donna and Maria are both part of the Valdosta Literacy Volunteer Program. Delaney volunteers as a tutor. Maria entered the program because she wanted very much to learn how to read and write. Inspired by her children, Maria watched with a mixture of pride and jealousy as her children entered the public school system and quickly picked up the skills she needed and wanted.
Her inability to read had hurt her so many times, and in so many different ways. Sometimes it was something small, like letting the cashier decide how much change she was due, and hope they were honest. Grocery stores were a particular problem. Experience had taught her that the picture on the box couldn’t always be trusted to ensure a successful meal. If the instructions aren’t read and followed, dinner might turn out to be a big surprise, usually not a pleasant one. Doctor’s instructions and medicine labels were a big problem, too. One time, Maria believed she had purchased a house but learned after making years of payments that she had only rented the residence. The owner had led Maria to believe she was paying him mortgage payments. When repairs were needed he refused to make them, claiming the house belonged to her and that all repairs, along with property taxes and homeowners insurance, were her responsibility. Maria eventually learned she had nothing vested in the property. The contract she had signed but failed to understand had not been a purchase contract at all. After years of payments, she was out with nothing to show for her money or work.
When one cannot read, she learned the hard way, one must rely upon the kindness and honesty and good will of everyone, even in the very personal relationships between a man and a woman. Literacy is power, and the lack of it means you are vulnerable to everyone you must depend upon to live and work and get along in life. By learning to read, Maria knew she could improve her skills for taking care of herself and her children on a day-to-day basis. And besides all that, every time the school sent home a letter or mail arrived, she had to show it to someone who could read it to her, which brought up two issues: 1. did that person read, understand and relay that information correctly? and 2. who wants their personal business out there like that?
So. What to do? She’d heard there was an organization in town that would help if only she’d ask for it. She decided to give it a try, although she still had her doubts. She had tried before, and failed miserably. Several times over the years, someone or another would offer to teach her, but they always ran out of patience before she got the hang of it, and each failed attempt was just further proof that she wasn’t smart enough. With one daughter in third grade and her other daughter in first grade, both were becoming excellent readers. Even the baby was learning his letters in daycare. So she screwed up her courage and called to set up an appointment. After a brief test to assess her skills, she was assigned a tutor, and although it took several years, her determination paid off. Maria can now read and write.
“People who cannot read often find ways to navigate through society without ever revealing their illiteracy by insulating themselves. They follow routines. They have people help them. They have someone to shop for them, and if they must go to the store themselves, they recognize grocery items by their box shape and picture. They get by, but it seriously affects their quality of life”, Delaney said. “Illiteracy is not a problem confined to adult immigrants. Many older Americans were too busy working to keep their families fed when they were young, and instead of going to school, they went to work in the fields or in the stores and factories”.
There are a lot of elderly women who might have gotten through the first few grades, but then had to stay home to help take care of the other children, she continued. “Many years ago, while living in Miami, I worked with a literacy group that focused on the Mariel boatlift refugees. I was young and naive, and thought I would use my fancy literacy skills to immediately teach people to read. It doesn’t work like that.” Teaching someone to read requires dedication, patience and knowledge of teaching techniques. LVP always needs volunteers, but it needs volunteers willing to stick with it. The primary point of education – its most compelling lure – is that when people learn to read and write, they realize that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were.” Delaney says. “When they see that they are not alone, and that others have felt what they are feeling, they see that things don’t have to be the way they are, that change is possible. The world becomes a slightly different place just because they read a book. Every time you pick up a book, you are changing your world—in a small way or a large way, who can tell at that moment?—but change is contagious and is the cornerstone of civilization.
“The process of learning how to read can seem slow for an adult, and in Maria’s case, it has taken several years. Sometimes when Maria wonders if she’ll ever be an easy reader, I have to remind her that unlike her children, who spend six to eight hours, five days a week, 12 of their first 18 years honing their skills, she has two jobs, three kids, one husband, and only a few hours each week to devote to her studies. Sometimes I record her as she reads so she can see for herself how far she’s come. We practice new words, reading and writing them during regular sessions. Sometimes we go to the store together. Sometimes, we cook together. We do these things because it teaches Maria how to read in the real world. There’s a lot to catch up on when you miss out on learning to read when you’re young. Tutors don’t just teach people to read. We’re mentors. After all this time, Maria is not just my student: she’s my friend, too.”