When I read that there were half a million functionally illiterate adults in my city, I signed up as a tutor. After two Saturdays of training, I was assigned my first student and purchased a set of teacher/student books.
Tony, my student, had suffered a childhood illness that left him partially paralyzed, and he never attended school. When I met him, he was 25 and in a wheelchair. He did not know the lower-case alphabet.
For almost three years, we worked in 90-minute sessions, typically twice a week, in his modest home. When he read a few simple sentences at the end of each lesson, we both were excited.
Sometimes I was greeted at the front door by Tony's four-year-old son, who pleaded, "Will you read me a book, Tom?" I always carried a child's book in my briefcase, and soon I was buying books or giving him books my children had worn thin.
I brought newspapers and magazines so Tony and I could read together - duet reading, it's called. Sometimes I stayed late to discuss history and current events, as new worlds of knowledge and wonder were being opened.
I encouraged Tony to write about his life and family. A highlight was the few sentences he laboriously wrote about the first plane ride he and his wife recently had taken. We spent time learning to write numbers so Tony could write checks instead of buying money orders. I taught him the alphabet so he could use a phone book rather than calling "information."
But there were heartaches. Sometimes no one would answer my knock on the broken screen door. Tony had forgotten it was Tuesday, or thought I was coming on Wednesday, or was someplace else and couldn't call. His apologies always were sincere.
A few months ago, to my disappointment, Tony decided to end our sessions. He said he was satisfied that he could read, and he didn't want to commit to any more regular meetings. I'm pleased with his accomplishments but worry that he may never go further. Tony takes pride in helping his son learn to read, and that's perhaps my greatest reward.
I've had students since Tony. One was a cook who, encouraged by his daughter, decided to learn to read. After several lessons in which he showed enthusiasm and progress, he began working double shifts and had no time for our sessions. How sad I couldn't influence his priorities. I've tried to contact him, hoping to renew our lessons, but he doesn't return my calls.
Another student quit before the first lesson. I was excited to start, since he and his wife were going to learn together, and this would be a new experience for me. But again, disappointment.
I've now had six lessons with a fourth student. Mary is a single mother who works in a fast-food restaurant. She has struggled to keep her illiteracy a secret from her boss. She greeted me the other night by saying "I'm so proud of my son for getting a 100 on his spelling test!" - forgetting for a moment that she can't read the words on his third-grade paper.
Mary dropped out of school in the ninth grade. How she got so far without reading is a question only school officials can answer. She says she's proud of herself for learning to read, but only time will tell whether she'll commit to the many months of hard work, the juggling of work schedules, and finding care for her son during lessons.
What it takes
I believe the rhetoric about the magnitude and cost of adult illiteracy. But do the people who are talking about the problem understand that teaching an adult to read takes more than money and public support? Do they recognize the long hours of one-on-one instruction over many months? Do they appreciate the commitment required of the student - usually a person whose life has already been damaged by lack of personal discipline? And do they understand that tutors have to commit to a far more difficult task than just occasionally meeting at a library table?
I've experienced both the joys and disappointments of tutoring. I've succeeded and I've failed. Now my focus is on Mary. Can I help her gain self-esteem, open doors to employment opportunities, encourage a literate household for her son? My prayer is that I not let her down.
* Tom Potts is retired from a corporate career and writes from his home in Houston.