Norma Logan is the Literacy Coordinator at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin on June 10.
It was just a normal day in the Literacy Volunteer Office at the Morrill Memorial Library. There were potential literacy students to meet and assess, phone and e-mail messages to retrieve and respond to, reports to write, materials to choose for literacy tutors and rooms to reserve for tutor/ student pairs.
A tutor stopped by and asked me if I had read “Life is So Good” by Richard Glaubman.
I had not, nor had I heard of it. She said, “Oh, you have to read it! It’s a true story about a 101 year old man who first learned to read when he was 98 yrs old. It’s just like what you tell us in the tutor training about functionally illiterate adults.” So, I made a mental note to find the book before I left for the day.
Minutes later, I answered the phone, and it was from a manager of a company who was training employees on safety procedures in the workplace. He had one employee who could not read the written materials that he had distributed. Clearly, he did not know where to begin to help him, and he was astonished that the man could not read. I told him that the phone call was a good beginning. “Is he a native English speaker?” I asked. “Yes, American!” he said in astonishment. I assured him that having worked in the Literacy Department at the Norwood Library for over 20 years it was not the first time I had heard about an adult struggling to read. He said, “Well, it’s a first for me.” He sounded like a take-charge manager who was used to having all the answers and yet this one left him dumbfounded. I complimented him on trying to help his employee and went on to discuss ways we could help him.
That night I started reading “Life is So Good”. It is as much about the optimistic philosophy of a black man, the grandson of slaves, who grew up on a farm in Texas as it is the story about a man who was illiterate his whole life. Literacy to George Dawson was
Knowing how to break- in a horse, run a farm and live off the land. He envied other children who did go to school, but he never felt the need to learn how to read until he was very much older. However, society does change over the course of years, and the definition of what it means to be a literate person changes, also.
Dawson said upon enrolling in a literacy program at 98 yrs. “Every morning I get up, and I wonder what I might learn that day. You just never know.” It turned out that he was not only helping himself, but encouraging and motivating other adult literacy students who were much younger than he.
Weeks later, I retrieved a phone message that started with a sigh and the words, “I don’t know where to start”. I listened as a young mother tearfully explained that she was recently divorced and never graduated from high school. She had always been able to find work without a high school diploma before she was married, but now needed to study for her GED test so she could get a job to support her and her child.
To be functionally illiterate is not to be able to read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life in one’s own society. The functionally illiterate wear many faces and have the invisible disability of being illiterate until the need arrives to get a good job, retain a job, go to school, help children with homework, and so on.
The same can be said for English as a Second Language adult learners who seek us out to improve conversational English skills in order to gain employment, become American citizens or just survive in this foreign culture.
The Literacy Program at the Morrill Memorial Library has provided free trained literacy volunteer tutors to help adults who need to speak, read and write English better to achieve their goals for over 20 years. If you know of someone who could benefit from this service or would like to be a volunteer tutor, please call the Literacy Program at 781-769-4599.