Friday, June 27, 2008

A different type of gift

I attended a graduation tonight. I was not a graduate, but I received a gift.

The graduates were five adults who were graduating from "Read To Succeed", the adult literacy program run by the YMCA in which I am a volunteer tutor. This is not an English as a second language course. This is for English speakers (with some dual language speakers) who have never learned to read. Some made it through public schools. Some dropped out. What they have in common is a desire and commitment to better themselves. Some want better jobs. Some just want to read to their children or grandchildren.

Most of them work full time and go to school four nights a week for two hours per night. Some have two jobs. One woman works nights and comes straight from work to class. Many yawn through their lessons, but most make it through the two-year program.

Each gave a graduation speech that they wrote. The common thread was how the inability to read had completely eroded their self-confidence.

I was most touched by Lisa, a mother of about forty- five. Lisa said that she had grown up as one of nine children in a French-Canadian home. Her parents spoke neither French nor English well and only one of her siblings graduated from high school. She said she was ridiculed in school for her poor vocabulary and hid her inability to read by avoiding people. At parent-teacher conferences, she told the teachers that she would not be able to help her kids with homework because she had a learning disability. She was constantly ashamed. She now reads two newspapers a day and may start her GED. Luis, Seth, Iman and Iris each had a similar story to tell.

The gift that I got was helping each of these people take a big step up in life. Each day that I helped someone learn that "an e at the end of a word is silent and the vowel before it is long", I was one rule closer to helping that person become literate; to take the fireman's exam or to read "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" to their kids.

I know that this sounds like a United Way public service announcement. Well maybe it is. My point is that this volunteer work, teaching one-on-one and seeing adults go from reading the alphabet to reading one syllable words to reading three and four syllable words is one of the most rewarding things I've done. It helps them and it makes me feel good.

As a group, adult illiterates are invisible. I'm sure that there is some group in your city that's like "Read To Succeed". Find a little bit of time to teach one evening a week. Best thing you've ever done.

-Mike Schnipper
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