Recently, “ALLI BOOT CAMP” was held in Ventura.  ALLI stands for Adult Learner Leadership Institute. This program is sponsored and funded throughout California by the State of California Library Literacy program.

When our Adult Literacy Coordinator, Deborah Fox, at the Oxnard Public Library told me of it, I was a bit skeptical. My learner was still learning and quite fragile. I am a tutor at the library and am proud to say that the young woman I tutor has come a very long way in the three years we have been together. This is a program that offers one-on-one tutoring so that mutual trust is easily developed.  I enjoy Maria’s love of reading, dedication to learning English, support of her devoted husband, and her steadfastness in all that she does. I have learned so much from her; about her culture, family, customs, language; and about English, which is my native language. I now appreciate how difficult English is to learn and understand.

When Maria came to the United States to be with her husband she spoke no English. Maria speaks fluently today.  But going to the ALLI Boot Camp was something quite different.

First, we had to define the term “boot camp.” Maria was aware of the military use of the term and thought that she might have to put on boots and trudge through mud and climb over walls. Not quite.  But trudge and struggle there was. At the orientation we were told that the students would develop self-esteem, learn leadership skills, become public speakers. They would be trudging through the language and climbing past their fears. That first afternoon, all of the participants and facilitators told their stories. 

The first few participants went up to the podium to speak.  When it was Maria’s turn she said, “I am sorry. I would like to speak from my chair. It is easier and more comfortable for me to speak from here.”  She spoke of how isolated, inferior and alone she felt when she first came to this country. She spoke of her lack of confidence in herself and her struggle with sadness and loneliness in missing her family back in Mexico. She told of the fear of being laughed at when she attempted to speak English. And how much it meant to her when she found the Adult Literacy Program at the Oxnard Public Library. She spoke completely in English and it touched everyone. The rest of the participants and facilitators all stated that they would also speak from their chairs, where it was more comfortable (safer) for them to speak. Maria had already introduced a spark of leadership by opening herself up to doing what worked best for her and giving everyone permission to do the same.  

As the participants and facilitators spoke, I heard the most amazing stories. People who grew up in this country with English as their first language, but had never learned to read and write and had “faked” their way through life, graduating from high school, running businesses, raising families, putting their own children through college. Successful people who looked as if they were on top of the world but, inside, experienced fear of being discovered as illiterate. People who came to this country without one word of English, tried classrooms and were unable to learn in a classroom environment and who then discovered the Adult Literacy Program in their communities and, in one-on-one environments, developed English speaking skills and confidence. Participants from Simi Valley, Camarillo, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Lompoc all had similar stories:  the struggle to develop English language skills and the fear of embarrassment and shame. Mud and high walls were nothing compared to this challenge.

The tutors left Friday evening and did not return until Sunday afternoon to attend the graduation ceremony where Maria and the participants received their Certificates of Completion. When it was over, I was swamped by people explaining to me how wonderful Maria was, how strong and confident she was.  Maria was surrounded by her classmates as they exchanged contact information, hugged each other, laughed and cried. I was moved to tears as I read Maria’s speech and wondered how she had come to compose and deliver a two-page speech in one evening — in English! I was told that “our shy Maria” was no longer shy. Maria had become a true leader, strong and forceful. And a word that she and I struggled to define clearly for so long, became her defining word. She had become an advocate for English literacy.

One very sad thing I learned is that a mayor of one of the cities does not wish to continue funding the Literacy Program in his city. The participant who told me this cried. This is a program that costs very little (one very low-paying salary, very few supplies, held in the community’s public library without additional cost), accomplishes so very much, and enhances every community.

There is great honor and pride in sharing and enhancing the life of another. I thank Maria, the Oxnard Adult Literacy Program and ALLI.

Jan Richman Schulman is retired from the Oxnard School District and has been tutoring at the Oxnard Public Library for more than five years.