On literacy tutorhood

Happy Family Literacy Day, readers, teachers, students, and tutors! I am grateful that my parents and family members had the time, patience, and compassion to engage in literacy activities with me.

Some months ago I wrote an essay for Intervarsity.org about my literacy tutor experience, and thought I would share it here, too:

On Tutorhood

In an early scene in the movie Wit, an esteemed professor of metaphysical poetry named Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) recalls learning how to read. There she is in a dash of sunlight, blonde and young and bending over a storybook on a low sofa as her father watches on from a chair.

At a word Vivian does not understand, she asks her father for help. “Say it in bits,” he directs. So she does, sounding it out: So-por-i-fic… “Soporific?” she stumbles out, not exactly rightly, but close enough. When she asks what it means, her father says, “Causing sleep — makes you sleepy.”

Vivian goes back to the book, satisfied. But soon she bolts back up. “The bunnies are sleeping! They’re sleeping! Just like you said!” she shouts, looking astonished and grateful for his guidance. Looking wildly, unforgettably alive.

Learning to read, reading to learn

I remember very little about learning to read. I realized this during the two-day training I received to become a volunteer literacy tutor. Many of my fellow tutors-to-be shared entertaining, even beautiful, moments when the bulb of reading comprehension went bright — instants of seemingly sudden clarity.

I have no such story. My childhood seems a wash of curiosity and delight lit by letters, words, and, eventually, books. I know I haven’t been able to read my whole life, but in a way that’s how it feels. It made me worry about relating to a student at a beginner level. To my relief, I was matched with a student at the final skill book. “He’s learned to read — but what he needs help with now is reading to learn,” said my instructor.

Since January, this student and I have met twice a week in a third-floor literacy center room with pink-red walls and one window I can see little else out this window than a sprawl of branches from the tree below. I hate when they’re bare, and I know my student does too; our winter sessions were almost always book-ended by talk of how cold the wind was on the walk over or how tired we were of ice.

Most of our lessons involve distinguishing vowel sounds, reading stories, and learning new vocabulary. A few months in, we had a lesson on endings — suffixes, as they’re officially called. For one exercise I listed six words in blue ink: child, mother, father, sister, brother, parent on lined paper. I then added to them the ending –hood.

“Have you ever heard any of these words before?” I asked my student. He studied them, squinted down. I knew such questions could make him sheepish — bashful. But he would ask me for help or direction if he needed it; he would not be ashamed.

I’d seen the link between illiteracy and shame in my tutor training. I’d heard stories of people isolated and ashamed all because of one inability. A few of my fellow tutors even spoke of parents and family members — bright, creative, and talented individuals — who had suffered in secret for years, fearing even their own family would believe them worthless.

Eventually my student pointed to a word on the list of –hood words I had made.

“What this mean?” he asked, with his finger on childhood.

“I know child,” he said. “But not like that — with hood. People asked me that word before, but I didn’t know what they’re asking.”

My answer was full of mumbles and pauses. I ended up just going down the list of words—mother, father, sister, etc.

“See,” I said. “All of these are things you can be. So, childhood means being a child.”

I know very little about my student’s childhood. But I do know this: when he was five years old he became a refugee, fleeing a country embroiled in war. His parents were killed; he came to Canada as an orphan. This was history dispatched to me in a bulleted list when I first learned he and I had been “matched” — alongside his age, his status as a single father and his soft-spoken demeanor. Since then we’d talked only a few times of his home country — about how its heat would compare to our cold, or how he’d like to take his children there someday.

Before we moved on to the next exercise, he said. “So all they mean when they say childhood is what I was like as a boy. Like that?”

“Right,” I said. “So I guess you’ll know what people are asking about won’t you?

He smiled — a very small smile, a sheepish and close-lipped smile, but still a smile.

 A kind of kindness

 When Wit’s Vivian Bearing recalls learning to read, she is 48 years old and dying — of cancer. Her voice cracks at the memory; she calls it “the very hour of the very day when [she] knew words would be her life’s work.” Against the cold swirl of unknown medical terms she will say, with complete sincerity: “My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.”

I see myself in Vivian. I, too, consider words to be “my life’s work.” They are, to me, foundational to vocation (as a freelance writer) and my most faithful way of relating to my Creator and his created. From grade school to grad school I have enjoyed reveling in their peculiarities, their meanings and their mysteries. And I take some pride in having a certain “way with words” — the kind of literary abilities Vivian terms her “cleverness” or her “wit.”

But I know literary abilities alone cannot console or alter us for the better. No. This lesson is the ache and glory at Wit’s core. On her deathbed, Vivian has no doubt that she has given knowledge to her students, but she laments the lack of tenderness in its delivery.

“Nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis and . . . erudition, interpretation, complication,” are some of her deathbed words, and I believe them. “Now is the time for . . . dare I say it . . . kindness,” she says, relishing the care of a lively and compassionate nurse. And I do not simply pity her — I understand her. She sees the emptiness of words without empathy.

I see this emptiness in the isolated experience of illiterate individuals. I hear a longing for kindness in my student’s very voice — from the up tilt of his answers to the quiet tone he takes when saying plural words, since his accent seems to make the letter “s” especially difficult.

Even when our two-hour sessions are weighty with my stumbles — my poorly explained terms or my ineffective lesson plans — kindness is still there to be strived for. It is a solid to grip when insecurity mashes at the sides of my mind about whether or not I’m doing the right or proper work with words. I know, after all, that the God I serve is not praised for His “loving-cleverness,” but for his “loving-kindness.”

I have come to see tutoring as one of many seats to take in this world’s diverse academy of compassion. I am glad for it, even with its challenges. For four hours a week, I can see — syllable by syllable, suffix by suffix, and story by story — the glory of language at work between teacher and student. We can sit side by side, at the same table. We can talk of our childhoods or of the lack of leaves on trees. We can write words out or look them up, together.

We can be astonished and sheepish and baffled and grateful as we puzzle over the page we have been given.

We are, in our reader-hood, wildly, kindly alive.

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