Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Today is the Day

So to make the most of my time off I've recently volunteered as a Literacy Tutor through the Pomona Public Library.

I've gone through a bit of training and I'll be honest, I was way more confident before training than after. The training had all these different methods and things not to say or not to do to keep from offending our students. I understand that working in adult literacy can be a bit touch -and-go but some of the stories used in training were terrifying.

I also get that our students are people that have struggled and been judged their whole lives and are putting themselves in a vulnerable place asking for help but it was all so much and so charged I became afraid if I wasn't perfectly practiced and ready to go then I would permanently scar these people in need. Mind you, my training consisted of about 4.5 hours of videotape (yes - that's right. I said videotape) instruction and despite the fights with the tracking after multiple rewinds to fully absorb what I thought I missed, I apparently competed with success. Typically they have 3 Saturday training courses for their tutors but I was anxious to get started and the next series didn't start for another 3 months so I got to learn via video instead.

Needless to say, when I got my tutor assignment I was pretty terrified.

I received my student's file and read through everything and my heart broke into quite a few bits. My student's penmanship was somewhere between Arabic and Doctor. He had an assessed 3rd grade reading level, was middle-aged, out of work, and had asked for a female tutor. How had someone gotten to middle-age equipped with what he had? How had this happened? Helping out someone in this much in need is a LARGE task, one I haven't had before, one that had high stakes and so my thoughts began to swirl and prey.

What if all I do is make it worse and frustrate him?

What if I offend him?

What if I'm terrible one-on-one? I'm so much more used to classroom settings.

What if I can't see and assess his needs properly and get him working on the whole wrong trajectory?

What if he's really mean? These are one-on-one tutor sessions - that can be dangerous with the wrong person!

What if this blows up and I find that I'm not really a good educator and I've just been diluting myself since forever and all I'm cut out to do is be a dish washer?

And so on and so forth.

So I put off making an appointment with my assigned tutoree, we'll call him Pip, for a few days but I finally did and we met today and let me tell you - I feel better but more broken hearted.

He is a sweet and totally sincere married guy that, when asked what his literacy goals were responded "I want to be able to read the Bible. I want to pick up a newspaper and know what it means. I want to be able to pick up a users manual for something and make sense of it. That's all"

My heart broke in the good way, in the I-will-do-everything-you-let-me-to-make-that-happen kind of way. "I want to be able to read the Bible" is something that will echo in me for a long time. I think it touched every missionary fiber that I still have. Because that's what it's all about isn't it? Literacy brings about a more meaningful life, a more driven life, a more independent life, a life more connected to God and those around you. 8 year olds at church regularly read outloud from the Bible, confidently even, and that sweet and sincere desire has been pressing on this man his whole life.

Because he had glasses and a bad back growing up in the 60s he got put in to Special Education and "graduated" high school but with an elementary school reading level. He's been told his whole life that he was dumb and he couldn't do anything. Not OK America! Not OK!

He's scrapped by doing auto repair and driving a forklift. He is really good with his hands - carpentry - the works. He wanted to be a massage therapist but you know what? He couldn't read the forms that he had to fill out for the office. He couldn't make sense of the charts of the muscles of the body. He was lost so he had to give it up. He was married for about 5 years before he told his wife that he couldn't read.

After getting to know him a bit and realizing that he's a kinesthetic and spacial learner (mechanics, carpentry, warehouse work) a whole game plan started forming in my head. I gave him a piece of paper and had him start writing things down. Firstly I told him he needs to find a simple notebook and start writing every day. Even if it's just copying what's in the newspaper. I told him that he has to start training his muscles in his had to do what his brain tell them. Just like being a mechanic, just smaller muscles. Next I told him to get a little pocket notebook (I call them detective notebooks) to write down words he doesn't recognize for us to go over with our regular vocabulary. I found some letter blocks and magnets that we're going to use for spelling and recall. Next I told him that we're going to read a book. I read "The Phantom Tollbooth" in 3rd grade and I figured that's a great place to start. His eyes got really big but I told him that it'll be fine and that we'll read it together, no matter how long it takes.

Then we went through a newspaper article. Slowly. Word by sounded out word. It took 45 minutes but, dab gum it, he read that whole newspaper article. He had the most satisfied look on his face when we were done. It was somewhere between a smile and a smirk. Like when you're choking down a yelp for joy. I congratulated him and you know what he said? He said he'd never done that before. He had never read a whole newspaper article. Until today. Today's was his day.

I sat with him as he filled out his library card application. It took 30 minutes. He had never had a library card. Until today. Today was his day.

I showed him how to find a library book. He had no idea. I showed him how to find "The Phantom Tollbooth" and then checked it out. He's never checked out a book before. Until today! Today is the day!

He's never read a whole book before either but that will change. He will read, he will understand and he will know that he is NOT a screw up and doesn't need to head-down barrel through life anymore. He knows more than he thinks he does. It's just a matter of practice and some boosted confidence. I have 50 years of criticism and negative self-talk to undo but it's possible and as he sees himself do things he never thought he could, like read a newspaper article, like read a book, like remember words, he will progress and he will be able to read his Bible.

In other words, he is exactly what I need as much as I am what he needs. His story and our lesson has grounded me more in this one morning session than anything else these last couple of weeks.

I feel so silly for any bit of self-pity I may have indulged in over the last few weeks. Here I am, equipped with everything I need to do anything I want. I have a supportive family, my youth, the most amazing friends in the world, an enduring Faith, a great education, a computer even. I have a good life and it's time that I'm properly grateful.

There are so many people who seriously need help. I feel so selfish that I've taken this long to give back, even the little that I am.

Today Pip has a book in his hand. Today Pip got a win he's wanted his whole life in conquering a newspaper article. Today a library administrator has one less thing to worry about and one more student paired up. Today I relearned what gratitude is and what it needs to be. It needs to be time. It needs to be patience. Today needs to be everyday.


The Other Mary said...

What an empowering post. Would you mind if I shared? As in, take this beautiful work and crassly post it to my facebook page?

Ms. Liz said...

Mary - you may post this wherever you like. Heck - send it to your Congressman and Mayor too. If this has happened to Pip that long ago I'm sure it's still going on today.

Anonymous said...


read your post to Grampa and I lost my composure almost thru the whole thing. It is a wonderful thing that you are doing. If we only help one person in our entire life, you have made a difference and the comfort that comes from knowing that, is priceless. You go girl!!!