It has been 2 ½ years and I am still working with my reading student, Kathy. We have become dear friends and meeting a few hours each week continues to provide us both with a chance to reflect on the world from a different perspective.
For Kathy, the lessons push the envelope of her world awareness as I continually introduce her to new things and try to instill the confidence to reach for more in life. Meanwhile, the lessons remind me to appreciate my blessings and to have patience for those in the world who are very different than me. The great divide between the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the uneducated, the sophisticated individuals and the rednecks, seem to be nothing more than a roll of the dice to me now. Those born into repressed circumstances or who were raised in ignorance are really just people playing the life game with loaded dice; all the more likely to crap out no mater how diligently they play.
Of course, I know enough about sociology to understand that environment plays a huge role in how people turn out. This basic truth is drilled into the enlightened middle class at school. We read magazines, newspapers, and memoirs that explore and philosophize the impact of diverse life experiences. We see portrayals of different social classes in movies. Sometimes our favorite heroes are people who despite their environmental influences overcome adversity. Educating Rita is my favorite movie, and who is not moved by The Color Purple?
But all of this provides only an academic understanding of a scientific fact. Easy, considering the distance we keep from those with hugely different backgrounds . We can bemoan the plight of women in a third world country and send money to educate them, all the while thinking we are liberal and generous, but how quickly we abandon our sensitivity about that kind of thing when we come face to face with someone who is ignorant. We feel threatened by narrow mindedness; angered. People lacking our enlightened perspectives really seem inferior. Rarely do we pause to accept ignorance or embrace it with respect for its origins when we’re close enough that it might affect our way of life. If anything, we rather not encounter it at all personally.
Kathy is smart, sensitive and caring, with remarkable potential as an individual, but she lives one breath away from poverty, is illiterate and has had very little exposure to the world. Knowing her, liking her, has helped me to be tolerant of ignorance. Rather than be annoyed when I butt up against narrow world views now as I once was, I find myself struggling to understand; wanting to make change. I will forever be grateful to Kathy for opening my eyes in this way.
A few weeks ago, Kathy graduated from two years of drug court probation. The ceremony was at a local college and twelve individuals from several counties were each given a plaque for their diligent work in overcoming addiction. Judges, social workers and ministers, all people involved in the program, spoke, and introduced the graduates, and then each graduate was given the opportunity to tell their story.
Mark and I listened, profoundly moved by the honesty (and the tears) of people who had just completed the difficult journey to recovery. We often watch a show called Extreme Home Makeover, where families faced with extreme hardship are given a new house, which in most cases, changes their lives forevermore. We always cry when we watch the show, laughing at each other because we’re such sentimental saps. We know we’re going to cry before the show begins, and that makes us laugh too. Anyway, as we listened to the speeches, tears in our eyes, Mark leaned over to me and said, “I feel like we’re watching Extreme people makeover.” Ha. So there we were, laughing and crying at the same time. So us.
Each time a graduate took the stage; their friends and family were asked to stand as a gesture of support. People would clap as the individuals came to the podium with note cards to help with their speeches.
I leaned over to Mark and said, “Kathy is at a disadvantage. She still can’t read fast enough, especially under pressure, to prepare notes!”
“She’ll be fine,” he said, and he was right.
When Kathy went to the podium, she got a standing ovation. Everyone knows her now – she is the supreme example of a success story, remarkable because she is someone who, despite modest resources and limited capabilities, manages to give back. People admire her for that, as do I. Dressed in a beautiful white lace dress, her make-up impeccable, her hair falling over her shoulders in luscious curls, it was hard to believe this was the same woman who only two years ago was a skeleton with rotten teeth, dark circles under her eyes and pallid skin.
“Look at how gorgeous she is,” Mark whispered. “Do you remember what she looked like before?”
For him, the change was shockingly drastic. It’s been a gradual thing for me since I’ve witnessed it all along, but he was right. She did look striking.
In a very soft spoken tone, she thanked God, the program, her church, and “my tutor who stood beside me the entire way.”
I was humbled by that. Proud too. Not just of Kathy, but of myself, for embracing the life disruption that comes with volunteering and sticking with something long after the glow of it being new or exciting or making you feel like a compassionate savoir has long since worn off. It has been very good for me on a deeply personal level.
I bought Kathy flowers and a gift in honor of her accomplishment, a delicate gold cross with tiny diamonds. Her faith has become the cornerstone of her strength, and recognizing this, I wanted to select a gift that would have meaning for her. She wears it all the time now – which convinces me it was a good choice.
One of the requirements for being in the drug court program is that participants must go back to school. Usually they begin working on a GED or they enroll in the community college. For Kathy, our tutoring lessons fulfilled this requirement, so I was forever writing notes for the judge to verify that we were meeting regularly. Now that Kathy is off probation, she is no longer required to attend school, and yet, we continue with our twice a week lessons. Learning to read is not something she has to do anymore. It is something she wants to do. That makes me feel good to know meeting with me is not a chore, but a choice.
I continue to bring new challenges into the mix, marveling when I stumble across something she doesn’t know that I considered general knowledge. For example, the other day I brought in the Atlanta Sunday Paper, and suggested we read the funnies.
As she stumbled over the text, it occurred to me that the funny papers are unique from other written stories by nature of their layout. I said, “Do you know why these words are written in these little white bubbles?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Kathy said.
So I explained that the bubbles have an arrow to denote who is speaking, and that they are supposed to be a visual clue of the conversation, sort of like quotation marks in a story without pictures.
She lifted her eyebrows and said, “Well, isn’t that creative. I wonder who thought that up.”
Of course, the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop wondering about that myself.
Yesterday, I enrolled Kathy and I in a Saturday class at the Art Center scheduled for November. This particular class teaches how to make a Christmas tree out of Kudzu – a weaving project for the holidays. Kathy loves crafts, and often makes things from bits and pieces she finds out in the forest. Considering this, I thought this class sounded like a perfect introduction to a new artistic endeavor. Kudzu grows everywhere around here, so if she has fun, Kathy can continue with the craft without having to invest in tools or supplies. I also think it will be nice for the two of us to do something fun together that isn’t about reading or writing. I’ll take her to lunch and we’ll make a day of it. Later, I’ll ask her to write about what she experienced. That will be a good lesson. Best of all, we will both leave with a spiffy kudzu Christmas decoration that has personal meaning. I suppose Kathy and I will have to stop working together some day, afterall she won’t need me forever. But, we’ll each have that decoration to symbolize our friendship, a tolken to drag out each Christmas . . . to remember.
After Kathy graduated, I wrote an article about her and dropped it off at the local newspaper. I included a letter of introduction, a résumé and two letters of recommendation with a note explaining I’d be interested in a staff writing position, column or even work as a freelancer if ever they should have an opening. I figured the article would serve as my writing sample. But mostly, I just hoped they’d publish it for Kathy’s sake. It has been two weeks, but so far, nothing. I’m told the paper often holds onto human interest stories and slips them in when they have a need to fill space. The paper comes out twice a week, so I have my fingers crossed. Since my blog friends don’t read this small town periodical, I think I’ll post the article here. It tells Kathy’s story fairly well, and shows off what I’m up to now. Perhaps it isn’t great – it is newspaper-y. But it is honest.
I am diligently working on a book, a memoir (which is why haven’t been blogging as much as I did previously). It is nearing conclusion and I’m rather excited by how it’s taken shape and evolved. Can’t wait to see how it does. When finished, I’m planning to write another piece of creative non-fiction about teaching an adult to read. I can’t begin to describe the life lessons learned through such a poignant relationship – but I will have a good time trying.
Anyway, here is the article for those of you who are not bored to death with my long, meandering blogs entries. If nothing else, check out the picture. Don’t ya know I forgot my camera the night she graduated. It was down at the barn waiting for the baby llama’s premiere. I was furious at myself for not remembering it. I ended up taking a picture the next day at our lesson, but gee, I wish I had gotten a picture of us her holding her flowers and plaque in that wonderful white dress. But it will be forever imprinted in my mind.
Reading into the Future
Kathy Smith was not only proud to graduate from Fannin County Drug Court at Appalachian Tech on August 21, she was proud because she could read the achievement plaque herself, proof that personal growth and positive results truly can come from adversity.
Three years ago, when Kathy was first arrested for possession of Meth, she was one of many in our population that is functionally illiterate. Kathy dropped out of school after her freshman year, joining the ranks of her other five siblings who also attended school yet never learned to read. Despite nine years at Morganton Elementary and Fannin High twenty years prior, Kathy didn’t possess the rudimentary skills to recognize all the letters of the alphabet. The only word she could read beyond her own name was “Stop” because she saw it so often on traffic signs.
Years later, when Kathy’s first child enrolled in school, she was self conscious about not being able to follow his academic progress, so she sought out a tutor in hopes of learning along with him. Six months later, with no progress made, her tutor opted to discontinue lessons.
“The woman offered to find me someone else, but her quitting made me feel unworthy of the time and trouble, so I just gave up. I’d gotten by without reading until then, so I figured it just wasn’t going to make that big a difference in my life,” Kathy said.
Years later, when she fell into trouble with drugs and found herself in court, Kathy was denied the opportunity to enter a rehabilitation program because she wouldn’t be able to read the manuals used in class. Suddenly, the reality of her handicap was clear. A caring probation officer helped her gain a chance to participate in drug court if she agreed to tackle her reading problem along with her addiction.
“My second child was now in school and I’d been thinking about trying to learn to read again anyway, so I was kind of glad when the judge made the suggestion,” Kathy admitted. “I was ready to be caught. Ready to make changes. This time, I was determined to stick it out. I was tired of hiding my disability and my addictions. I was tired of being embarrassed.”
Kathy went to FLAG to seek help and after braving the tests designed to establish her entry level, found she didn’t even make it on to the lowest level on the learning chart. She was paired with a volunteer tutor, Ginny Hendry. For eight weeks they worked on the alphabet together, but just as they were beginning to move on to words, Kathy was arrested again and this time, she was sent to jail. Her son was sent to foster care and Kathy watched her world fall apart.
“That was when I realized that my drug addiction and lack of education wasn’t only hurting me, but the people I loved too. I couldn’t live with that.”
Two things happened then that helped Kathy resolve to change her life. She expected her tutor to give up on her in disgust, but Ginny began visiting her, making plans for them to continue her lessons in jail if necessary. Next, Kathy began listening to visitors from the World Harvest North Church who offered comfort and encouragement to the incarcerated. Kathy was moved by the support she was offered from her family, her tutor and the church jail ministry. She vowed that if she was ever given another chance, she would do all in her power to overcome her weaknesses and help others.
Rehabilitation is a difficult road for anyone. When Kathy was released she faced with a rigorous schedule of meetings and drug court commitments. She had to avoid former friends that might be viewed as a bad influence and make effort to surround herself with encouraging, supportive individuals. She never missed a single court hearing or drug test, diligently followed all probation rules, and practiced reading and writing daily.
Two evenings a week she participated in Narcotics Annomyonous meetings and one night was devoted to an intervention class at the World Harvest North church, where she had become a member. She began attended a bible study group, struggling with the literature because of her reading handicap, but knowing participation reinforced her convictions. She also continued meeting her tutor two mornings a week, pushing her education forward until she not only passed preliminary tests but reached a third grade reading level. Soon she could read a children’s bible herself, fill out school forms, and even help her son with his homework on occasion.
“When I first volunteered to teach someone to read, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be.” Ginny said. “Drilling basics quickly grew tiresome, and I feared Kathy would lose interest, so I opted for a more creative approach to show her how reading could enhance her life beyond just following road signs or understanding notes from school.”
Ginny bought Kathy a cookbook, pans, and all the fixings to make cookies. Kathy’s homework assignment was to follow a recipe and bring homemade cookies to the next lesson. Ginny also bought an extra coat for the News Observer empty stocking drive and sent the subscription to Kathy. Each week, Kathy was given assignments to follow the local news and learn the resources available in the community.
“Kathy didn’t even know there was a place where job, obituaries and local announcements were listed,” Ginny said. “She was most distressed to see local arrests, realizing a public announcement must have been printed about her as well.”
Together, Ginny and Kathy filled out an order for the Angel Food Ministry, and Kathy learned how she could stretch the family food budget. Ginny bought her an address book and Kathy collected addresses from friends. Her homework was sending them all Christmas cards with a handwritten note. Writing in a daily calendar helped Kathy keep track of all her appointments, and a new library card and youth dictionary made it possible for her to borrow books and practice reading on her own. She was encouraged to keep a daily journal as day by day, Kathy adapted new habits that challenged her reading skills, reinforcing all she was learning. Meanwhile, she read the arrest reports, saddened to witness just how many people were still slaves to addiction.
Kathy’s health improved, but now that she was finally clean, she didn’t recognize herself when she looked in the mirror. “I couldn’t believe what those years of doing meth did to me,” she said. Kathy had lost all but six decayed teeth, her cheeks were sunken in and her hair hung lifelessly down her bony back. “I looked much older than my age, and many days, I felt it too.”
Kathy had discovered a support network of people who cared about her and her progress, and she was motivated to succeed for them as well as for herself. A friend from church gave her a make-over and her tutor helped her purchase a set of false teeth. With a new haircut, a healthy weight, and a smile she no longer tried to hide, Kathy’s self esteem surged. The transformation on the surface reflected the changes she was feeling within, and Kathy’s deep sense of gratitude inspired her to want to help others.
She joined the church ministry and began visiting the jail weekly as a voice of inspiration to others. She was invited to speak at the high school twice and, accompanied by her tutor, she lectured high risk students on the importance of staying in school and staying away from narcotics and alcohol.
“I always bring my before and after picture. That’s a wake up call to anyone,” Kathy says.
nbsp; She then began volunteering at the Ester Academy, devoting time to sit with Girls battling addictions. “We sit and talk. I share my experiences. I want them to know they are not alone and that there’s hope. If I can do it, anyone can.”
Kathy knows several non-readers, and she continually encourages them to go to FLAG to find a mentor in hopes that they too can improve their life. “It’s embarrassing to not be able to read. You tell yourself it isn’t that important and you learn to survive without it, but the truth is, you’re always self conscious and you settle for less than you deserve. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m proof anyone can read,” she says.
Unfortunately, few people step forward because it’s inconvenient and they have negative associations from earlier school experiences.
“I know how hard it is. But I have no problem explaining to my friends at church or my son’s teacher that I might need help or that sometimes I have to go slow. I’m actively doing something about my problem so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m not a great reader yet, but I’m proud of what I’ve learned so far, and I’m only getting better. This year, I even filled out my own forms to re-enroll in FLAG and I was able to send a note to my son’s school when he was sick.” Kathy’s smile reveals just how empowering it is to be self sufficient at long last.
“Kathy is an exceptional case,” Donna Earl of FLAG says. “I’ve been testing her from the beginning and she’s made remarkable progress. Her positive attitude and unfaltering commitment is inspirational. I wish every student who walked through our doors had her outlook.”
A student like Kathy reminds everyone working for organizations such as FLAG or the drug court that, despite limited funding and many discouraging cases, their efforts really do help members of the community. No organization or volunteer can help people who aren’t willing to help themselves, but Kathy is proof that when a willing student is pared with well intending community organizations and/or individuals, wonderful things can happen.
“I’m no longer someone who is a part of the problem. I’m someone who is helping to be a part of the solution,” Kathy says, her pride as evident as the effervescent smile she no longer has to hide. “And I’m here to tell you it’s the greatest high a person will ever experience.”
* The Fannin Literacy Action Group (FLAG) not only helps people attain their GED, but has a waiting list of willing reading tutors eager for students. If you know anyone who cannot read or write, please share this article and encourage them to visit FLAG to begin their journey towards self sufficiency today.