He was tall and hefty and always spoke with his outdoor voice. He worked for the county Road Commission. In his 40’s he came to the Family Literacy Center looking for help with his reading. He had collected dozens of “coffee table books” because he was eager to learn about a variety of subjects. He believed that if he could just learn to read he could do anything, including finding a job that was not backbreaking work.
As the director of the program, I interviewed and tested him. He was basically illiterate and suffered from the worst case of dyslexia I have ever seen. I gently attempted to steer him away from this impossible goal, but he would have none of it. He wanted a tutor! I decided to tutor him myself because I didn’t know if any volunteer would have the patience.
We worked together for several years. I finally decided that the key to helping him was to convince him that he was not dumb or stupid but had a disability that was preventing him from learning to read. We worked hard at slowing down and attacking words letter by letter so he could be sure that he was seeing the right letter in the right order – and then applying what he had learned about phonics. It was excruciating process to watch, but a liberating process for him.
About halfway into his tutoring experience, he came into a session and said he wanted to quit. He had tried to drive by himself to Atlanta to visit family, but when he got on the freeways leading into the city, he couldn’t find the right exit. Finally he got so frustrated, he turned around and came home. All the self-esteem we had worked so hard to build went right out the window. We talked for an hour. I explained that I have the same problem driving in unfamiliar areas. But he was devastated by the experience and quit. I didn’t blame him.
After several months he stopped by the office. He wanted to try again. So we began again. I used every technique I knew, including writing in sand, but still he struggled. Eventually we began having discussions about being happy with who he was as a person even if he couldn’t read much better. He would always shake his head and say he wanted to keep trying.
One day he came into the room with a big smile on his face and a gleam in his eye. He sat down and the story poured out. He had gone to work that morning and gotten his work orders as usual. In his truck, he looked at the paper. As the years had gone by, he had memorized many street names, but he wasn’t familiar with this one. He had no idea where to go. Somehow he learned the area the road was in and drove up and down the streets looking for the intersection. Finally he came up to a road that he thought might be it. He stopped his truck and, as he had learned to do, compared the letters on the paper to the letters on the sign – one by one. It was the road!!
He looked at me, grinning, and said, “I figured it out by myself!” We talked about what a great feeling it is to accomplish something on your own. Finally he said, “I think it’s time to stop the reading lessons. I’m never going to be able to read the books I bought. It probably was silly to buy them. But it’s okay. I can do what I have to do. And better yet, I’m proud of who I am. Thank you so much!”
A few months later I saw his truck pull up to my house. My heart sank a bit; I hoped he wasn’t going to ask if he could be tutored again. He unloaded something from the truck and then knocked on the door. “This is for you,” he said. “It’s my thank you. I saw it in the dump and I said to myself, “I bet I can fix this up for Karen. I’m sorry it took so long, but it was a lot of work!” He stepped aside and I saw a beautifully finished three-drawer wooden file cabinet. “I figured with all the papers you have, you could use this.”
I could barely speak. “You got this out of the dump?”
“Yeah, it was pretty damaged and it took a lot of sanding and a bunch of coats of stain, but I think it looks pretty good.”
I said, “It’s beautiful! Thank you!”
As he turned to go he said, “Well, you always said that I was talented and to be proud of who I am even if I can’t read. It was a lot of work, but I proved to myself that you were right.”
(“‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one
of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me..”)