FIVE years ago, Oscar Woods arrived at the Adult Learning Center and announced, "I'm 72 years old and I can't read or write."
As a tutor at the Center, I worked with Mr. Woods, step by rudimentary step. He was a bright, friendly man, full of wonderful stories about his boyhood in West Virginia.
He had left school in the third grade, when he was told he had to go back to first grade because he couldn't read or write. He told me, "I looked at them kids and I was so much bigger than them, so I quit."
When his father lost his job in the coal mines, the seven children were parceled out to different families.
So Mr. Woods, at 14, ran away, hitchhiked south, and worked on farms for food and shelter. He returned to his hometown several years later, then worked in the coal mines for 40 years. He married at 18 and fathered four children.
And now, living in Virginia, Mr. Woods was ready to tackle his long- postponed schooling.
I admired his tenacity. He'd look at a word, puzzle over it, try to pronounce it, and then often have to admit that he hadn't the foggiest. The English language could be puzzling.
One day we were working with the "wh" words for pronunciation. I started out: "We have why, when, whether, where, and who. Who is pronounced like 'hoo.' " Oh well, we just had to wade through all the illogical sounds.
Mr. Woods confided how hard it was to shop at the grocery store for his wife, who, he proudly pointed out, had a seventh-grade education. He would take her list into the store, find a kind clerk, and ask to be directed to each item.
When he asked directions on the road, (he has a driver's license obtained by taking an oral test), he would ask to have landmarks pointed out to him - a church, a gas station. He had learned to cope with each day's challenges by his wits.
His progress was very slow, but it was progress. For a breather from concentrated phonics and spelling, we'd look at maps on the wall - maps of America, of the continents. This was a totally new experience, showing him states, rivers, and lakes in our country. West Virginia was a foreign land until we started finding familiar names. His face would light up when he recognized a town.
It was nearing Christmas and he decided he wanted to send Christmas cards to those close to him. He brought six cards and a list of names and addresses his wife had written down.
He slowly printed each name and a two-line message - mostly the same: "Merry Christmas. Have a nice time."
He sent one to his son, Larry, in Michigan, with whom he'd had an argument and had not spoken to in several years.
When we met after the holidays, his face was beaming, and his blue eyes shined.
He couldn't wait to tell me: "Larry called me at Christmas and said, 'Dad, I love you.' "
He grinned. "I said, 'I love you, Larry'.... It was that Christmas card that did it!" His blue eyes misted.