Mailbox

MailboxI was 20 or 21. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older. I can’t remember his name. Once a week, we would meet at the Trenton soup kitchen. I was volunteering. He was forced to be there. One of the conditions of his probation was that he would work toward his GED. We had a long way to go. He didn’t know how to read.

I had heard of people who went through life not knowing how to read, but the concept was completely foreign to me. I struggled with reading in 1st and 2nd grade. They even held me back a year. But I had a great teacher the second time I was in 2nd grade. I had an incredible mom who worked with me at home and read with me every night. And I loved books. I loved books so much I wanted to be able to read them on my own. By 5th grade, I was a tutor for 2nd graders who struggled with reading.

Maybe the man at the soup kitchen didn’t have a great teacher or a supportive mother who had the time to read to him every night. The truth is I didn’t know his backstory. The truth is I didn’t really care. Because there he was, sitting next to me, determined to learn how to read . . . and I was determined to help teach him.

There were other patrons of the Trenton soup kitchen who were working on their GEDs, each one at a different level. Some of them were there by choice. Most of them weren’t. Some of them took advantage of the situation and worked hard. Some of them didn’t. Some of them found excuses to get up for a drink or to go to the bathroom or to sharpen a pencil . . . grown men and women acting like school children. Grown men and women still fighting against the world, still guarding their secrets of learning disabilities, still afraid to admit they needed help, still afraid to ask for it.

But not my student. He was always bright-eyed, always anxious to learn. He knew he made mistakes and he wanted more out of life. He had dreams and they all began with learning how to read. The words I had taken advantage of for so many years were squiggly lines on a page to him. We started slowly.

On our second meeting, I brought out the approved workbook. I opened to the appropriate page and placed my finger under the first word. My student excitedly pointed to the word “us” and exclaimed, “I know that word! That’s mailbox!”

I was confused as to how he read “mailbox” from “us.” I smiled and corrected him gently. He sank just a tiny bit and said, “Oh. I thought it was mailbox because ‘u’ and ‘s’ are written on every mailbox.” I smiled again and told him that was really good thinking. Then I explained what the U.S. on the mailbox really meant. He laughed and we continued working.

That moment gave me just the smallest insight into my student’s ability to function in the world without knowing how to read. I thought it was brilliant of him to have made that connection. I wondered how many other connections he made in his day-to-day life and how many of those connections enabled him to keep his secret.

As difficult as things might have been for me at the time, knowing how to read made everything so much easier. I left our lesson that afternoon thinking of how intelligent a person must be to make it through life without the benefit of understanding written words.

I only worked with my student for a couple of months. The following semester, my schedule conflicted with that of my ride. I’m a public transportation girl and buses in Jersey suck. I never even said good-bye to my student because I didn’t know my last day there would actually be my last.

Every so often, I wonder where he is now. I have no doubt in my mind that he learned to read and the thought of how many doors that opened for him makes me smile.

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50 responses to this post.

  1. Wonderful story. You did make a difference in this person’s life, an early sign of your good heart, dear Dayle.

    Reply

  2. Reblogged this on Garden of Words and commented:
    This is the sort of memoir piece I aspire to write. It’s also a wonderful reminder of a few of the advantages I took for granted growing up. Compassion grows from an understanding that we are more alike than we are different.

    Reply

  3. It is so hard to imagine how people cope when they cannot read – it’s such a basic skill that we really take for granted. You illustrate well through this how they do cope and that it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t smart….they just didn’t get the same start, for whatever reason!
    So glad that person got to have you!

    Reply

  4. This is great. So great. I love the mailbox story.

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  5. I don’t often think of how hard it must be to be a non-reading adult. I can’t even imagine. I barely remember not being able to read. Great story. I’m sure you made a difference.

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  6. What a neat encounter! That little detail about the mailbox is one of those things that brings it home–for you in the moment, and for us as readers. Well done.

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  7. I’m glad you made such an impact on this man’s life. This is a wonderful story!

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  8. Wonderful story!!!

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  9. How awesome that you were able to help someone learn to read. It’s easy to forget that not everyone IS able to read and what that means. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like now if I hadn’t ever learned to read. 😦

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    • Thank you, Sharon! I can’t imagine it either. Writing is so central to everything we do . . . professionally, for entertainment, and just for the day-to-day getting around . . . but there are so many more people than we realize . . .

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  10. What an inspiring story. Well done.

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  11. It IS interesting, and a huge sign of intelligence how he managed to survive without that skill. Great story! (And I second you on the NJTransit sucking big time!) 🙂

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  12. Posted by iasoupmama on February 26, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    What a struggle for him. When I was doing my student teaching, I was working one-on-one with a sweet boy in the 11th grade. I realized that he didn’t know how to read or write and told my cooperating teacher, who was simply aghast. She’d thought he was lazy. Poor kid…

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    • Wow . . . I think your story is the perfect example of why we need to question our assumptions. People are not always (or often, in my opinion) what they seem. Thankfully, you were able to catch that before he left school!

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  13. This is a great story, and you are amazing for teaching him how to read. I bet he thinks of you and smiles too.

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  14. I can’t imagine how tough it must be to navigate the world without being able to read. Both of my children had issues with learning this skill, thankfully both of them prevailed. I admire that you were able to help someone on the path to literacy, and I’m a bit envious because I found it so very hard to help my own children with this important skill. I truly believe that people who have struggled a little bit with learning any skill are better at helping others master that skill.

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    • Thank you, Vanessa! It was definitely easier on my end because he was so determined to work hard. He didn’t frustrate easily and he was always in a positive mood. Thinking back to my own struggles as a child, I know it was often incredibly frustrating for me and I’m sure that made it more difficult to teach me! . . . . So happy to hear that your children have overcome their struggles! 🙂

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  15. I love this story! You have amazing compassion and a huge heart to be able to see this man in the light in which you saw/see him. I pray that some day you cross paths with him again so you can see how well he is doing.

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  16. I want to give you a hug and say thank you – what a lovely, hopeful, inspiring story! You are a gift.

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  17. What a great story! And an interesting perspective… I never really thought of what it would be like to function in a literate society without knowing how to read. You sure made a difference in his life.

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    • Thank you, Dana! Around the same time, I read a book about a woman with dyslexia and how she functioned through the world. While it wasn’t quite the same because she did know how to read, it was still incredibly difficult for her to function through everyday things. It’s amazing how much we take for granted!

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  18. Posted by marcyl on February 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Cool story. That’s sad that you never got a chance to say goodbye, but I bet he did well.

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  19. What a wonderful story. You should be proud of doing something important like helping another American. I think its BIG cool!

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  20. it’s amazing what we take for granted. this is a wonderful, touching story.

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  21. A heartwarming story! Literacy is so interesting. It must feel good to have played an important role in that man’s life.

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  22. Posted by nataliedeyoung on February 28, 2013 at 10:42 am

    I cannot even imagine not knowing how to read. That you helped someone on his journey to better himself – bravo!

    Reply

  23. It’s amazing how people can mask illiteracy for so long. Wonderful story. I think it’s guaranteed that he still thinks of you, too.

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  24. Posted by modmomelleroy on February 28, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I got a ride from the airport several months ago from a driver who told me he couldn’t read. We chatted for the entire one hour ride and I found him to be one of the most intelligent, insightful people I’d ever talked to. He said he’d had someone in his car a few weeks before that who suggested he write a book. I thought he should too. I hope he does someday, whether he dictates it or learns to read and writes it himself. I’m sure your student will never forget you or how you impacted his life.

    Reply

  25. I loved this story. These are the things we take for granted. I was wrapped up in his excitement to recognize US but was sad for him at the same time. I wish you knew.

    Reply

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