For Jennie to read

I CALL to set up an appointment to meet with Jennie and thoughtlessly begin to rattle off the complicated directions to my home. ``Wait,'' she says. ``Could we meet somewhere so I could follow you to your house?''

``Oh. Well, sure.''

Of course.

Jennie cannot write down the directions, nor can she read them. At 44, Jennie is illiterate.

Jennie is the first student assigned to me for tutoring. I'd just completed training as a volunteer literacy tutor, spurred by a nationwide campaign focused on improving the country's disgraceful illiteracy rate. Appallingly, there are an estimated 20 million people in the United States who are functionally illiterate; approximately 1 in 8 citizens, many of whom have attended, or even graduated from, high school yet cannot write a check that would clear a bank, cannot address an envelope well enough for postal delivery, cannot figure change from a purchase.

We hear these figures and sigh, wondering where we went wrong in our educational system. Numbers are a cold reflection of truth, but Jennie is warmly human and when I meet with her, I realize with devastating clarity the burden illiteracy imposes on a life.

When we sit down for the first lesson, it is hard to determine which of us is more nervous. I have taught bright young university students but feel uncertain with this shy adult who views a basic primer with puzzlement. I watch as she opens the book, carefully turns pages, then runs her hand longingly over printed words she cannot read. I am filled with respect for the courage of this woman who sits beside me. We smile at each other and begin.

We pause to chat when I sense her frustration is blocking progress. And from these talks, a picture emerges of Jennie's survival in our extraordinarily word-oriented society. I discover that she possesses a precisely honed memory. Unable to read or write, she memorizes shopping items, recipes, shapes of traffic signs.

She knows things that I don't notice - that cans and boxes of food have pictures - beans, brownies, peanuts, pears. ``I don't buy generic plain-wrapped cans,'' she laughs.

She can distinguish between signs for men and women on public restroom doors. ``But if it says ladies and gentlemen, or something cute like kings and queens, I just have to wait and see who goes through which door. I'm glad most places use pictures now,'' she tells me.

She cannot read a menu or labels in clothing. She cannot read instructions on packages or look up a name in the phone book. A dictionary, which I consult so casually, is meaningless to her. I notice how carefully she listens, looking me in the eyes and concentrating when I give her a homework assignment; note-taking is an unreliable and foreign idea to Jennie. She listens and paraphrases so that she can remember how to accomplish the assignment.

AS we continue to work together, I am drawn deeper into Jennie's world. She is fiercely independent, but, when necessary, she asks for help. She has taken trusted friends with her to read a ballot at election time. She asks a family member to accompany her to fill out employment applications.

And she is adroit at developing strategies to save face. She can write checks, using numbers for dates and amounts; laboriously she learned to spell out ``ten'' and ``twenty'' and never wrote checks in any other amounts. In middle age, she has learned to say truthfully, ``I don't have my glasses - what does this say?'' Clerks are apt to grin tolerantly at that excuse. Better to be thought vain than to admit, ``I can't read.''

I can't read. Imagine! Working with Jennie, I become acutely aware of the extent to which I take this skill for granted. A thousand times a day I read - notes, mail, directions, instructions, newspapers, calendars, pamphlets, signs, schedules. I jot down messages, lists, reminders, as naturally as I breathe. Words fill my world. Every room in the house holds words. Magazines on the coffee table, books on the night stand, recipes in the kitchen; my den is a monument to my literacy.

I see Jennie's head bowed over a large-print word in the primer. She stares at this mysterious configuration. What does it mean? Dainty drops of perspiration dot her upper lip.

She makes primordial sounds: ``Ju-uh-um-pah-ing ... juh-ump-ing ... jumping!'' she exults.

Her eyes light up, dissipating years of failure, years of feeling stupid, years of pride-crushing admission that she is illiterate.

``Jumping,'' she says again, looking hard at the construction of the word, tasting its whispered shape. Triumphantly, she tackles the next word in the sentence. She hungers to read, yearns to make the connections of word and sound and sense. She stands outside a door of words that slammed shut in her face years ago and she hammers insistently, wanting in.

I long ago discovered the mutuality in teaching and learning. I teach Jennie how to unravel mysterious word symbols and from her I learn about courage and persistence.

Someday I will tell her this.


Someday I will hand her this essay.

And Jennie will read it.

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