Archives for posts with tag: literacy

Tonight was the second to last meeting of the semester for my literacy student and me. We’ve had quite the year. Despite a number of personal challenges for both of us, we’ve persevered, and seen some high points:

When B.R. and I began our work, assessment tests were a huge source of stress for him. Things are different these days. In the last month or two, he has taken three tests. He did so well on the first one, he had to take another. And again. He took the third test last week, on the Wednesday we would normally have had our class.

Tonight, in response to my questions about the test, he said, “It was hard, but it was fun.” (This from a man who was so distressed by our first test that we had to stop before it was finished.) We found one of the Literacy Center staff members to get his results. They were great.

When he came to the Center in 2011, B.R. was at level two. At the end of last year, he tested at level three. This year, he is at level FIVE.  B.R. was astonished that he had been able to remember everything we’d worked on. I was delighted to be able to say, again, “It’s in there. You’ve got this.”

B.R. received a computer tablet as an early Christmas gift. He will be starting computer classes at the Center in January.  He is as confident and optimistic as I have ever seen him.

On Wednesday, we will wrap up our current section, and talk about what is ahead for us next year. I think both of us are a little more certain that we will be ready to tackle what’s next.

Reunions offer a particular kind of joy: the past and present converge, and the resulting emotions are layered and complex.

I recently attended a high school reunion, and during the same trip I made a visit to my former office. I was also able to spend hours of time in long conversations with several of my oldest and closest friends.

I doubt a stay at the most exclusive spa would have been more reviving. I came home with a reserve of energy and optimism that I can still tap.

Today I am anticipating another reunion, but not for me.

My literacy student, B.R., had a Big Brother when he was a kid. I’ve heard many stories about the time they spent together. Jim, the Big Brother, took B.R. places he’d never been, and exposed him to music he’d never heard. B.R. was exposed to a broader world than he had imagined. He told me about his gratitude, and his wish to look his Big Brother up someday, just to see how he was doing. The last time B.R. mentioned Jim was  Monday night, as we were wrapping up our lesson.

At home that night, on a whim, I got to Googling. I had a name and an occupation to work with.

In a few minutes, I found someone who could very well be THE Jim, and an email address.

It took less time to find him than to compose a message and decide whether to send it. I knew how B.R. would feel about a reunion, but what about his former Big Brother? The internet offers a wonderful but creepy capacity to find people who may have very good reasons not to want to be found by a particular searcher.

I wrote a brief note, explaining how I knew B.R., and saying that if he was the right person, and wanted to be in contact, I could convey a message to B.R.  If he was the right person, but did not want contact, I just wanted him to know that B.R. remembered him with affection and gratitude. Then I went to bed.

Yesterday morning, I had a response. I’ve been smiling ever since. Yes, Jim said. Although he lives half a world away right now, he’ll be home this summer and would love to see B.R. In the meantime, we’ve arranged for me to show B.R. a video message tonight when he and I meet for our regular lesson. Jim also sent a link to a photo sharing site, where he has uploaded pictures from their time together, so many years ago.

I’m saving the video for B.R., but I peeked at the photos. There was my student in a picture dated 1981. There were several shots of him with the same serious, sad face I recognized, but several more with B.R. grinning like I know he can. The past and present converged, reminding me of the time between, and the violence and hardship B.R. had known before we met.

Somewhere between the smiling kid at the beach, fishing and learning to appreciate the Beatles, and the smiling man at the literacy center, reading and learning to overcome his fear of writing and spelling tests, there was a time that is not mine to share, so different from B.R.’s childhood fun and the present.

The sweetness in the photographs. The bitter awareness that B.R.’s happy innocent enjoyment would morph into something else entirely. The incongruence of his early adulthood to the person I know now. The cheerful thrill I feel at surprising B.R. tonight. Of course I wanted to cry, but were they happy tears or sad?

The last several years have been particularly challenging, for reasons I’ve mentioned, and others we don’t need to worry about right now.

Despite that, and my natural default setting of “fret and ruminate,” I am inherently optimistic; as low as I sometimes feel, I can’t help but hope for the future.

Sometimes we get a boost just when we need one. Yesterday was one of those times.

My literacy student was the featured student speaker  at the Literacy Center’s annual fundraising breakfast, before an audience of more than 200 community leaders.  He was open and compelling, talking about his life and how learning to read was changing it. Afterward,  he was approached  by a number of people, who offered support and leads for jobs. He left with an application and list of open positions from the sponsoring venue.

It was our second breakfast as a team, and the realization of a goal set at the first:

On a smaller, more personal note, I noticed that for the first time, a sapling in my front yard seemed to be in bloom. This scrawny little thing appeared  under our real trees  several years ago. From the shape of its leaves and the look of its stem (it didn’t even really have bark yet) I hopefully guessed it was a dogwood tree. My belief had been unsupported by further evidence until yesterday, when I glimpsed the few spots of white among the leaves as I parked my car.

I looked and looked again. There they were: flowers with four petals, yellow centers. I stared. Took a photo. Back into the house and on Google Images I went. There is no doubt. It’s a dogwood. Blooming. I choose to take it as a sign.

It stands to reason that people who struggle with literacy face obstacles the rest of us don’t, and my student is no exception. B.R. has more than his fair share of problems, but he manages to maintain a surprisingly positive attitude. Despite the challenges he faces, he is remarkably reliable in getting to class twice a week. Occasionally though, the challenges affect our ability to stay on task.

Last night B.R. apologetically explained that he was too distracted to concentrate, so we spent our time talking about what was going on. As much as I love to offer help and advice, there was no easy answer to his problems. I recognized that, and said as much. It was okay, really. Sometimes just having a safe place to vent frustration is all the help you need. Our conversation wandered toward happier subjects, and back to our work. I told B.R. that I thought it was about time for us to move on to the next section of lessons.

He asked me if I thought he was making enough progress, with such a look of concern on his face that I wanted to cry. In all honesty, I said yes.

I reminded him of how far we have come: he is easily reading multi-syllable words, and has lost his fear of writing and spelling. I told him that we have actually already touched on many of the lessons ahead of us, and I knew he was prepared to handle them. B.R. recognized the truth of what I was saying, and seemed to relax. He told me (and not for the first time) that having the lessons to look forward to, and the homework to keep him busy, helped him to keep him from being overwhelmed by his troubles. I reminded him (not for the first time) that working to learn to read was a very positive step, and that he should be proud of his commitment and self-discipline, regardless of any setbacks.

I know how he felt; I still struggle with the idea that I should be making consistent, quantifiable progress every day in my own life. It is very easy to focus on what I haven’t done, to the exclusion of what I have. Logic dictates that every day will be different, and the factors that affect “progress” are not always within our control. Sometimes everything seems futile, and sometimes, suddenly, it all seems to fall into place. Results can’t be controlled, but effort can. Trying is almost everything. I have promised myself to try every day.

B.R. and I ended early last night, agreeing that we will spend next week reviewing the main points of our current section, and start our next one the week after. I think we are both excited about moving on.

Sometimes just showing up is progress enough.

It was my first Leaders in Literacy Breakfast; the agency’s 5th annual. My student, B.R., and I were invited to sit at one of the tables and speak to guests about our experiences in the program. When I approached him about it, he was apprehensive, but agreeable. We attended a workshop last week, in preparation for the event. We volunteered to be the student-tutor pair for the role play exercise.

Shy B.R. began to speak. I could see him blush, but he sat tall and spoke clearly about what the literacy center meant to him.  I teared up, and I wasn’t alone. After the workshop, I spoke with several of the center staff and board members, all of whom were “blown away” by B.R.’s sincerity and enthusiasm (no surprise to me.) There was talk of him being the student speaker at next year’s breakfast.

Last night was our first lesson since the workshop, and the night before the breakfast. B.R. allowed as how he was a little nervous, so we went over the agenda: there would be opening remarks by the Executive Director, and speeches by a few people, including a student. When he heard that, B.R. said, “I might like to do that next year. I would be scared, but I think I could do it.” I told him that I knew he could do it.

I met B.R. at the center this morning, and we drove to the Washington Duke Inn,checked in, got our name tags, our buffet plates, and went to our assigned table. We had been instructed not to sit next to each other, to better allow us to interact with prospective  donors. While I chatted with our table mates, I took an occasional peek in B.R.’s direction. He was actively engaged in conversations, and although I overheard him say he was nervous, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

As things wound down, I talked with a staff member. She had missed the workshop, but had heard about B.R. She said that he was a unanimous candidate for student speaker next year. I told her that he had mentioned interest in doing it. We caught up with B.R., who was happily visiting with other guests. “Can you see yourself up there next year?” I asked him. “Yes ma’am.”

We walked through the grand lobby into the bright spring morning, past rows of shiny new cars. “This program is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” B.R. smiled. “Those people were really nice. They really care. This is better than winning the lottery.” We drove back to the center and said our good byes. “Have a good weekend,” I told B.R. “You have a blessed day,” he replied. I pulled into the street and headed home. “I already have,” I said to no one in particular.

BR and I have been working together for nearly six months now, and are on the verge of leaving behind a world consisting only of short vowel sounds and one syllable words. When you have been reading as long as I have, you tend to forget the intricate stages of learning the skill. Last night, we were reviewing blended digraphs, along with closed syllables and their five exceptions. (I know, you were too.)

I wrote the exceptions on the board: ild, old, olt, ost, and ind. We made words using each of the blended sounds: wild, child, gold, bold, colt, molt, most….uh oh! We touched on the exceptions to the exceptions: cost and lost, for example.

I constructed a pyramid of increasingly longer words as I made another list on the board. The last word was “topnotch.” BR quickly read it, and was able to identify the digraph (ch) and the blended digraph (tch.) I could see he “got it”, and he could too.

We went on with the lesson, and I tried hard to stay on our topic, but he is eager, and I am prone to digress. He suggested “coast” as a word using the “ost” exception. I wrote the real spelling on the board, and explained that we would get to that. “Oh wow,” he said smiling, as I demonstrated some other tricky vowel combinations we weren’t ready for. We talked about why English is such a complicated language to learn (all those other contributing languages.)

BR knows we have a lot of work left, but he knows he can do it. I do too.

Literacy is a big deal to me. For years, I’ve thought, “I should become a tutor someday.” And now I am. This summer I found an agency that trained and matched tutors to students. My student (let’s call him “BR” ) and I have just begun our second semester together.

BR is a grown man. He has spent more than a decade in prison. His life has included a series of horrifying incidents, any of which might have put me under the bed in a fetal position to this very day. An undiagnosed medical condition led to him being told, as an elementary student, to “sit in the back and draw.” He was socially promoted throughout high school, because he was good at sports. He did not graduate. He read at a second grade level when we met.

Turns out we had a lot in common. One of his goals is to get a driver’s license; I needed to get one too. He is looking for work; so am I.

We meet twice a week. We’ve missed a few sessions, but we are making great progress. Not only has BR’s reading improved, his confidence has grown considerably. He gets as much pleasure from reading “Hop on Pop” out loud as I do from watching this big, tattooed man work his way through it.

It’s clear what BR has learned- he’s got his short vowels sounds “locked down,”  knows what a syllable is, and has mastered most of his sight words. I’ve learned that this is really fun, and that I am pretty good at it. I’ve also learned that doing it is almost as easy as just wanting to do it someday.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (

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