My story about working in adult literacy starts with a Black Knight Buddleia sapling on my twenty-sixth birthday at around two o’clock in the afternoon. I was digging the hole to plant the Buddleia in the garden of my Tipperary farm when the phone rang. The caller was Mary, who ran the then-small adult literacy center in Kilkenny where I’d hoped to volunteer. She was calling to offer me a place in the next training session. This was the best birthday present I have ever received.
I trained and worked at the literacy center from that week until the day I left Ireland about ten years later. During that time, the Irish literacy rate wasn’t great — about a quarter of the country was without basic-to-intermediate reading skills — and the government decided to put some money behind the problem. For those of us at the literacy center, this meant we got dedicated classrooms in a dedicated building and could finally move our library out of the trunk of literacy-tutor Bernadette’s car. It was a golden age of trying to right a longtime wrong.
Many of my students had terrible stories about school as young children. The most common: classrooms where students were asked what their fathers did for a living, with the poor children then seated in the back of the class and usually ignored. Beyond this, there were stories of abuse at school — broken bones, broken minds, broken lives — and of financial hardship at home, which relocated these children from the classroom to the field at ages as young as nine.
My adult students had gone to school anywhere between the 1940s and the 1980s. Too late for them, corporal punishment was outlawed in Ireland in 1982 and became a criminal offense in 1996. My students’ stories were not easy for them to tell, and the stories often left me hollow. But each memory was a trauma-block to learning, so every story shared was a step forward. One night, two men in my math class bonded over a shared experience. One of them spoke of a female teacher who would periodically call the neglected students from the back of the classroom to the chalkboard to do impossible problems — and then would walk behind one of them, hitting him so hard on the back of the head that she broke his nose on the chalkboard. Upon hearing this story, the other man said the name of the teacher aloud. The men rubbed the bumps on their noses as they described her in detail. Over the next fortnight, the one who’d been stuck on addition for six months was subtracting. Two months later he was memorizing his multiplication tables.
Opening the door on trauma, it seemed, was the same as opening the door to learning. This is something I find in high schools all over America when I visit and encourage students to free-write. Some of the trauma I’ve read about in student work leaves me hollow all over again. When I ask, “Why did you choose to share this with me?” I often hear, “Because no one ever asked me to write about myself before.” This isn’t the teachers’ fault: they are so busy keeping up with the new governmental programs that come with each new administration that they are barely allowed their own vocation. Teachers know what to do. If only we’d let them do it.
Many of my adult students had some reading skills in their early years but were then forced to read texts that bored them as they reached their teens. This is a common story in this country as well. Many federal literacy budgets concentrate on early and family literacy, and while I know the importance of early literacy, I truly believe that teen literacy is equally important. Just because we have readers at age nine doesn’t mean we’ll still have those readers at age fourteen when the curriculum contains only trusted and “safe” old standards with few relatable contemporary novels. Many contemporary texts can open the door on trauma (and learning and enjoyment) the way free-writing can do for today’s teens. Again, teachers know this, but so often we don’t give them power. We empty their classroom libraries. We allow nonteachers to scrutinize and censor and even choose their book selections. In doing so, we limit our teen readers. What many outsiders don’t know is this: elementary readers, especially struggling ones, can forget how to read by the time they’re forty if they stop practicing reading. I know this because I’ve seen it.
It’s difficult to write about teaching literacy and not relate it back to myself and writing, but it feels selfish and off-subject to do so. Teaching was never about me. But it did have an enormous effect on everything in my life from the day I undertook the mission. As my Black Knight Buddleia grew, my worldview grew along with it.
Until the day you meet a fifty-year-old man who doesn’t know his alphabet, you somehow take everything for granted. Not just reading. Everything. Some people call writers brave. Sure, we put our thoughts on paper and we put them out there for people to read, reject, and judge. But that’s nothing compared to walking into a literacy center and saying the words “I can’t read” and then working many long years to learn how to do it. I suddenly understood hardship, poverty, and functional illiteracy on a very intense personal level. How many of us, when we talk about the nonliterate population, realize that inside that population are the smartest, most inventive people we will never know about because they were denied an education?
My adult students taught me many things. One taught me about combustion engines. Another taught me how to make the perfect pie crust. Others taught me how to laugh at things that don’t matter and how to stick up for myself. I remember a night when a student came into our classroom mortified because she was spotted entering the center by a friend from church. The class rallied around her and said, “How many other people in your church have the same problem but could never come in here?” The message was: Be proud. You are learning. You are a role model. Knowing a student who could read to her baby now, help with homework now, write a check now; teaching students how to read a ballot during an election year — these are things that are hard to put into words. To readers, they are words on a page here in The Horn Book. To me, they are faces, hugs, tears, and nights in the classroom talking through the trauma of a childhood education doled out by tyrants.
I had rules as a literacy teacher — rules for myself so I didn’t scare or trigger any students. No standing up or hovering, no dressing up, no using a chalkboard. While we were doing creative writing, there were no mistakes; students could write what came to them, and grammar and spelling did not matter. But in the more advanced classrooms, I needed students to understand that they would learn more from mistakes than from successes. Or, more accurately, that learning imprints itself deeper in your brain when you share a mistake with others. Example: as a child I brutally misspelled the word soldier during a fifth-grade spelling bee (S-O-L-G-E-R) and after that I never, ever forgot how to spell that word. I would tell this story on the first night of intermediate classes and I would introduce a new type of literacy learning — shared mistakes. “We will share our spelling mistakes with the class and those words will be our spelling list for the week.” Their looks of sheer terror are something I will never forget. But it worked.
I believe my own books are a similar experiment. I write to share fictional representations of my mistakes and I hope to positively imprint readers by sharing them. Human beings like being right, but my students taught me that I’d rather be honest than right. My students taught me that making mistakes and talking about them is the only way to grow.
I’d been writing novels before I ever got my job at the literacy center. I was trawling rejection letters from my mailbox every week. Looking back, I think I was failing at writing high-quality novels because my novels were about plots, not people and the truth of people. It’s scary to write about the truth. I owe my bravery to my students. Not one of them could get over that threshold without looking at their baggage and realizing it was time to finally unpack their ugly secret. My job was to show them that there are no ugly secrets if we surround ourselves with supportive, nonjudgmental people. This is the same message I take with me to schools all over the country. I write about the truth as a way to engage teen readers who might be stuck reading that old “safe” canon that made me stop reading when I was in high school. I want to convey that there is no shame in being a teenager in a culture that persistently undermines teenagers. In many ways, these two jobs I’ve held have the same aim. Empowerment.
My Black Knight Buddleia bush was the size of a large SUV by the time we left the farm. We’d pruned it and propagated the cuttings and grown hundreds of new saplings from it. This is literacy. You propagate human potential and water it with compassion. You teach a student how to multiply. You teach a student to forgive herself. Like my Buddleia bush, these lessons reproduce; the lives of the children and grandchildren of my former students will be forever changed.
On the less metaphorical side, there’s this scene I can see if I close my eyes: a man whose skills were basic when I first met him now reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at his desk on my last night working at the center. Even now as I write this, that scene makes me cry. No shame. Only pride. That’s what teaching adults how to read taught me as a teacher, a human being, and a writer. No shame. Only pride.
From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.