Can't Read

     "Can't do it,"  his hulking frame belied the gentle tone.  "Can't read 'em words you ask me to,"  his eyes skittered off my gaze and settled on the corner behind me.

     "Well,"  I stalled for words, "Well, we'll learn them."  His black eyes leaped from the hiding corner to my eyes for less than a blink's time.
     "I've tried and tried, but they don't form meanings.  They play games with my efforts."  His shoulders wilted and I could see the old man he could become if he never learned to read, the phoney sun-bright "Yes--mam's" of the forever poor, the brim clutching hopeful of a menial job, the desperately snatched trinkets for the cornered hopes.
     This child deserves better.  I gritted my teeth so hard in thought my jaw was aching as I started to talk, "Every morning before homeroom, you come to my classroom.  You can learn to read."

     "But-t," he stammered, and I knew that the best selling job of my life approached.
. . . what if?"

     "Look, I can't promise you straight A's or even that you'll get the scores you need to get for your football scholarship.  I promise you my best teaching.  All I ask is that you give me your best learning for fifteen minutes a day."

     "Ok" he said, but his voice sounded more like he was humoring me than resolved.

     But so we began.  Fifteen minutes--every day--he never missed--nor did I--through the falling leaves, mounting snows, and into the blooming spring.

     We read first the comic strips in the paper--they were short and understandable.  We progressed to the sports page where he explained to me more than I'll ever understand about quarterback sneaks, broken plays, or off-side kicks.

     One day slightly wilted carnations lay on my desk--I was pleased at a gift from my "unknown" student.  I did notice that the flowers appeared the day after someone had been buried in the graveyard next to the school.  But I kept the observation to myself, as I placed my chosen flowers in a vase.

     Reading every day cost my scholar a lot of ribbing--some not so gentle.  The Uncle Toming calls had to hurt, but the power of unlocking words gave him strength to pull away from the group who thought failing was cool.  He grew quieter in class, but he listened and gripped his book firmly, mouthing each word, unscrambling for himself homework assignments.

     Years later I saw his home; nine of them had lived in three rooms, and through the cracked linoleum on the living room floor, the ground could be seen beneath the floor.  No place to read could have existed there, or then.

     But read he did.  And graduate he did.  I saw him at college a few years later.  He'd grown even more--perhaps I'd shrunk.  He only needed another semester to graduate.  He'd come a long way in his reading.  He thought he'd lined up a job as a safety inspector, but in his soft, ever gentle voice, he apologized, "It only offered $21,000 beginning pay."  I told him that's what I made that year.  He looked at me in disbelief; then in the middle of the bustling student union building, he gave me a hug.  We both walked a little taller when we left that building that day.  It started with his trust so many years before that somehow he could learn to read.  And I remembered for a golden moment why I had entered this profession. 

First Published: Just Write, Spring 1996