After Lucy Newman lost her baby, holding on to the maternity clothes she no longer needed was just another painful pinprick of constant, needling loss. When she went to the department store to return the clothes, she approached a woman she assumed was Mexican and, in Spanish, asked her for help.
“She goes ‘Excuse me? Where do we live?’ ” Lucy says from a chair in her Ventura home, where a pudgy Chihuahua named Princess is sealed to her lap like a barnacle. Though Lucy’s English is nearly perfect, her words are framed by a thick, Mexican accent. “She said, ‘We live in the United States. We have to speak English.’ She didn’t ask what I needed.”
Before Lucy, now 47, moved to the United States at 21, she didn’t know that the monolithic country to the north — the one that she now calls home — even existed. One of 12 children born and raised in Jalisco, Lucy was never enrolled in school and arrived on American soil unable to write Spanish and unable to speak and write English. “I didn’t know anything when I came to the United States,” she says. “It was like a dream. I never thought I was going to be here.”
Though Lucy eventually sought instruction and tutoring in English from the Ventura County Library Adult Literacy Program, her first decade in the United States was a struggle. When she needed a box of cereal, she would peruse the grocery store aisles in search of a box that matched the last one she bought. For her, it was all about color. The words on the boxes were mysterious, meaningless symbols.
“For the longest time in my life, I felt handicapped,” she says. Upon arriving in the United States, Lucy went to work in Oxnard for a friend for $40 a week and room and board, cooking, cleaning and caring for two little girls. Her mother remained in Mexico and her father, as he had done for many years, traveled back and forth between Mexico and the United States to work in the fields.
Lucy appealed to others to help her write letters to her mother. When she was about 23, she married Alfredo, a bilingual man who was born in Mexico but raised in the United States with his American-born mother. “I was begging Alfredo to please help me learn English,” Lucy says. “I told him, ‘I need you to stay with the kids so I can go to school.’ He said it was impossible for me. He didn’t even want me to learn how to drive. I had to learn myself.”
Lucy continued to beg Alfredo to let her attend school. “One day, I begged him to write a letter for me to my parents,” she says. “He said that the way you speak Spanish is the way that you write it — but I didn’t even know the alphabet.”
When Lucy’s eldest son was 5, she attempted to enroll him in kindergarten and struggled through an awkward conversation in which she was able to get her point across to the school’s secretary. “My surprise was like, ‘Oh, nobody speaks Spanish,’ ” she says. “All my friends spoke Spanish and it was just really hard.” It was then, at the age of 32 and after more than a decade in the United States, that Lucy decided she had to learn English.
Lucy eventually divorced Alfredo and married Jim Newman, a man she met while working as a janitor in Oxnard. It was he who encouraged her to take classes in English and, though he spoke no Spanish and she spoke no English, the recently divorced mother of two and the recently divorced electrician hit it off instantly.
“When I met Jim, a lot of times we would go to the dictionary,” Lucy says with a grin. “He was asking me questions and I didn’t know how to answer back … My father-in-law says, ‘When we first met you, you wouldn’t start talking. Now, you can’t stop talking.’” Before finally being able to speak English with confidence, Lucy went through various phases of understanding. For a time, she could understand but not speak English and still struggles with reading and writing in English — but is determined to keep learning.
“If I had the chance when I was growing up to go to school, I could be somebody,” she says. “It didn’t happen — but I’ll take advantage of what I can now.”
It is hard to imagine that Lucy — vibrant, excited and full of mile-a-minute words — was ever at a loss for them. She wed Jim 16 years ago and the pair have two children — a boy and a girl, ages 15 and 11. The two children from Lucy’s previous marriage, another son and daughter, are 21 and 19. In the 16 years since Lucy began studying English, she has been embraced by staff at the Ventura County Library Adult Literacy Program, where she was first tutored by a woman named Joyce Miller, who has since passed away, and Neill Robinson, who has been her tutor for the past few years.
Though she credits her husband with encouraging her to learn and become literate in English, it’s unlikely there is anyone who sings Lucy’s praises more loudly than Robinson, an AmeriCorps volunteer with the adult literacy program who is clearly inspired by his pupil’s progress.
As an AmeriCorps volunteer, Robinson, who retired four years ago after working for the Southern Bell Corp. for 34 years, is one of about 70,000 Americans in a network of service programs that help fulfill the nation’s needs in education, public safety, health and the environment. He meets with Lucy on Wednesday nights, after she attends Bible study.
“She’s one of our best advocates,” Robinson says of Lucy. “I feel fortunate to be able to work with her. That’s why I went into retirement early — to be able to help others with their challenges.”
Robinson’s eyes tear up as he speaks of Lucy’s success. He describes her as “assertive, smart and with it” and adds, “She has no problem with self esteem at all.” He considers her success in a statewide contest for those learning to read and write a phenomenal accomplishment. Lucy wrote a letter to Anne Frank, about whom she and Robinson had been reading, and placed in the contest over countless other entries. “She didn’t have a clue about anything,” Robinson says. “She wouldn’t even talk on the phone — but look at her now.”
Lucy isn’t unlike most people who make their way through the door of the Ventura County Library Adult Literacy Program.
Carol Chapman, manager of the program, notes that, while many might guess that the county’s illiterate population is comprised of mostly Spanish speakers from Mexico, the truth is that they hail from all over the globe.
Close to 25 percent are Spanish speakers, but only 14 percent are from Mexico; others are natives of Nicaragua, Argentina, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and various European countries. Still, one of the most common myths about illiteracy is that it isn’t as prevalent among people born in the United States. Last year, Chapman said, 54 percent of illiterate subjects who utilized the program were American-born.
“One in every four adults is illiterate,” Chapman says. “That’s the statistic. If you were at a concert and every fourth person stood up? That’s a lot of people.”
For the illiterate, finding the strength to ask for help can be a crippling challenge. While some simply aren’t aware of the resources that exist, some are too embarrassed, ashamed or afraid to reach out. Additionally, if those people are “getting by,” they might not feel there’s enough need to make the effort. “There are people who can’t do some of the things they want to do — like read to their grandchildren,” Robinson says, “but they own their own businesses because they get help from their spouses.”
Chapman and Robinson know many stories about how the seemingly inconsequential things in life can make or break an average day for someone who cannot read. Illiteracy can strain any relationship — be it marital, parent-child, sibling or friendship — in which one person must rely heavily on another and, Robinson says, “That’s a situation where, if you were married and got divorced, it would ruin your life.”
It can seem inexplicable that anyone born and raised in the United States is illiterate, but, Chapman says, it’s easier to fall through the educational cracks than one might guess. Many of the program’s students can read at a third- or fourth-grade level, but “the leap to multi-syllable words was never made.”
The Ventura County Library Adult Literacy Program, with sites in Ventura, Simi Valley, Camarillo, the California Youth Authority and both county jails, offers free one-on-one tutoring for English-speaking adults, which includes English-language learners who can communicate well enough in English to receive tutoring; the Families for Literacy program, which offers free tutoring for adults with children under 5 and who need help getting those children prepared for school; and the English Language Literacy program, for immigrant families with children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s Chapman’s hope that the program will be awarded a grant to fund instruction for adults regardless of whether they have school-aged children.
The program, which is 21 years old, currently serves about 200 people in the one-on-one tutoring alone.
If you were to stroll into any of the program’s tutoring sites and take a glance around the room to guess who are the students and who are the teachers among the pairs of people huddled together, well, you’d have a hard time of it. Some of the students arrive straight from work, dressed smartly in business wear. Some look like soccer moms. Some drive to distant tutoring sites to make sure they won’t bump into anyone they know.
It can be hardest for the average American raised speaking and writing English to seek the help that is needed. “Your person learning English has a very good excuse to seek tutoring,” Chapman says. “They don’t have to be ashamed, and the shame that goes along with being illiterate is awful for people.”
Expectations and pressures can exacerbate the shame to the point that some must take action to achieve the freedom they crave, but others continue to avoid the subject altogether. “People get tired of hearing, ‘Read to your children, read to your children,’ ” Chapman says. “Well, they can’t read to their kids and it makes them feel terrible.”
Back to the drawing board
The bottom line is that literacy doesn’t have as much to do with intelligence as is commonly believed.
While Chapman and Robinson — and Lucy, for that matter — admit that learning to read and write as an adult can be much more challenging than it is for children, adults bring life experience and a broad range of knowledge to the table. “Parts of it are harder and parts of it are easier — but the nice thing about working with adults is, they have experience and they have vocabulary. When you’re tutoring a child, you have to create that knowledge.”
The first three years of a child’s development are critical, and the first seven are optimal for squeezing in the greatest amount of that critical knowledge, says Chapman, who explains that the building blocks for literacy begin younger than we might guess. Chapman recently observed that 13 students from a class of 30 kindergartners didn’t know colors or numbers and that many kindergartners the following year didn’t know colors, numbers or body parts — in Spanish or English. Standard interplay between adults and babies usually includes the teaching, at the very least, of body parts. Some of the first words babies learn are the names for their facial features and extremities. “If someone played with you as a baby, or if you watched someone else play with a baby, you know what to do.”
The increasing use of TV as a “babysitter,” paired with a lack of interaction with parents, could be precursors to a lack of general knowledge by the time a child reaches school age. “The television doesn’t teach language,” Chapman, a former teacher, says. “Language has to be reciprocal.”
With lack of stimulation on the home front, kids who are already behind often slide through the cracks in school because they don’t get any help at home. If such children also have one or more learning disabilities, they fall behind even more quickly. “So many kids are bright but have a visual perception problem or an auditory perception problem,” says Chapman.
Such was likely the case with the late, great golfer George Archer — who kept his illiteracy a secret from everyone but his wife and daughters over the course of his stellar career. Archer had a difficult childhood and what his wife describes as a “mental block” about reading, but she also told the San Francisco Chronicle that he’d likely be diagnosed today with “severe dyslexia and a nonverbal learning disability.” Still, he was gifted with a great spatial intelligence that made him a natural on the golf course. Archer is widely regarded as one of the best putters in PGA tour history.
“We’re all disabled in that none of us know anything perfectly,” says Robinson, who explains that differences in learning styles are largely responsible for the damaging stigma surrounding illiteracy.
Two children with the same intelligence quotient may receive identical scores on an I.Q. test, but one of the children may take twice as long to finish the test. It simply takes some people a little longer to grasp concepts because of their individual comprehension processes. Some people grasp concepts quickly by listening to a lecture, while others have to take notes or watch videos before the ideas fully sink in. It’s also widely believed that most people have stronger skills in either math or language arts. It’s true, Chapman says, that a lot of people have a knack for one set of skills or the other, but differences in learning styles can make all the difference in some cases.
Students with forms of delayed auditory perception are always at least a couple of minutes behind everyone else in class. Those minutes add up quickly and can lead to illiteracy. “Up to a point, it’s about strengths and weaknesses,” Chapman says. “If I was judged on baseball, I would be the most learning disabled person on the planet.”
Strengths and weaknesses are individual qualities that don’t interfere with life in the classroom, while learning disabilities make for constant struggle.
In one-on-one tutoring, tutors like Robinson can focus on learning disabilities and the weaknesses of students. “We can pick up on the pattern of the kind of mistake being made and focus on the one thing that would make the most difference,” Robinson says.
In addition to his work with Lucy, Robinson and his wife, Mary, a preschool teacher, entertain and educate little ones through the literacy program’s family-based programming. The pair act as minstrels and participate in sing alongs with the children. “It gets the kids involved in singing and storytelling,” he says, “but a lot of times the parents are with them. We also target the adults.”
“Low-literate parents, if they don’t have the skill of reading, don’t know what to do to get their kids ready for school,” Chapman says. “Our goal is teaching the parents.”
Lucy had to take a break from tutoring sessions when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. It’s hard to imagine her, so outspoken and crackling with health, knocked out by illness. But she came back — and she’s been in the literacy program, off and on, for about 12 years.
She became a citizen and took college courses in Spanish and computer literacy. “They’re pushing me for my GED [General Education Development],” she says with a wide grin. “I’m a little behind because I have to do math.” Despite whatever challenges may lie ahead, for Lucy — a woman who had never attended a day of school in her life — the race is already won. “Now I can read a recipe, cook with a recipe,” she says. “I feel so good. I don’t feel handicapped anymore. It’s like I was blind and now I can see. It’s like a new world. For me, it’s something wonderful.”
Lucy credits Miller and Robinson for their encouragement. “One of the things Joyce told me was, ‘Lucy, you are learning a lot. You may not think so, but you are.’ And that’s also what Neill tells me.”
Miller once brought Lucy an article about a 105-year-old man who learned to read late in life and eventually wrote a book about his experiences. Lucy may decide to do the same. “Learning makes you a better person,” she says. “I have had a very interesting life — and I have learned a lot of things.”