I was 20 or 21. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older. I can’t remember his name. Once a week, we would meet at the Trenton soup kitchen. I was volunteering. He was forced to be there. One of the conditions of his probation was that he would work toward his GED. We had a long way to go. He didn’t know how to read.
I had heard of people who went through life not knowing how to read, but the concept was completely foreign to me. I struggled with reading in 1st and 2nd grade. They even held me back a year. But I had a great teacher the second time I was in 2nd grade. I had an incredible mom who worked with me at home and read with me every night. And I loved books. I loved books so much I wanted to be able to read them on my own. By 5th grade, I was a tutor for 2nd graders who struggled with reading.
Maybe the man at the soup kitchen didn’t have a great teacher or a supportive mother who had the time to read to him every night. The truth is I didn’t know his backstory. The truth is I didn’t really care. Because there he was, sitting next to me, determined to learn how to read . . . and I was determined to help teach him.
There were other patrons of the Trenton soup kitchen who were working on their GEDs, each one at a different level. Some of them were there by choice. Most of them weren’t. Some of them took advantage of the situation and worked hard. Some of them didn’t. Some of them found excuses to get up for a drink or to go to the bathroom or to sharpen a pencil . . . grown men and women acting like school children. Grown men and women still fighting against the world, still guarding their secrets of learning disabilities, still afraid to admit they needed help, still afraid to ask for it.
But not my student. He was always bright-eyed, always anxious to learn. He knew he made mistakes and he wanted more out of life. He had dreams and they all began with learning how to read. The words I had taken advantage of for so many years were squiggly lines on a page to him. We started slowly.
On our second meeting, I brought out the approved workbook. I opened to the appropriate page and placed my finger under the first word. My student excitedly pointed to the word “us” and exclaimed, “I know that word! That’s mailbox!”
I was confused as to how he read “mailbox” from “us.” I smiled and corrected him gently. He sank just a tiny bit and said, “Oh. I thought it was mailbox because ‘u’ and ‘s’ are written on every mailbox.” I smiled again and told him that was really good thinking. Then I explained what the U.S. on the mailbox really meant. He laughed and we continued working.
That moment gave me just the smallest insight into my student’s ability to function in the world without knowing how to read. I thought it was brilliant of him to have made that connection. I wondered how many other connections he made in his day-to-day life and how many of those connections enabled him to keep his secret.
As difficult as things might have been for me at the time, knowing how to read made everything so much easier. I left our lesson that afternoon thinking of how intelligent a person must be to make it through life without the benefit of understanding written words.
I only worked with my student for a couple of months. The following semester, my schedule conflicted with that of my ride. I’m a public transportation girl and buses in Jersey suck. I never even said good-bye to my student because I didn’t know my last day there would actually be my last.
Every so often, I wonder where he is now. I have no doubt in my mind that he learned to read and the thought of how many doors that opened for him makes me smile.