Rachel is 25 years old, intelligent, beautiful. But she can't read or write. Ethnically she is Apache Indian and Mexican American. She attended school in California and was in the tenth grade when she finally dropped out, discouraged because she was being passed on but could not read at higher that first-grade level. While the school system no doubt was partially to blame, It was only after I had known and worked with her several months that I learned of the deep emotional wounds from an early childhood experience which held her back.
I met Rachel through the Right-to-Read program conducted by the Houston Community College. I am one of the volunteers in the program. After the basic 12-hour training workshop I was assigned to work with a student, and Rachel is my first. Twice each week we meet for 1 1/2 hours and on a one-to-one basis, and I help her to enter the world of words.
Rachel is now married and has no children. Before marriage she worked as an exotic dancer. It was the only thing she knew how to do which didn't require an ability to read.But now she would like to get a job doing something, as she puts it, "to help people." Her goal is the police academy, but since she can't read a job application that goal seems far away.
Rachel speaks like any intelligent young woman, and only the most perceptive observer would know that she can't read. Adult nonreaders have many devices and tricks to cover up for their deficiency. Rachel has taught herself to read necessary signs and to write her name. But she can't read letters from friends in California, she can't write a check, read a menu or a recipe. She guesses at the programs listed in TV Guide. Her husband handles all family business and reads her mail to her. Like most nonreaders, she is embarrassed at not being able to read, and avoids situations which might reveal her problem.
You may, as I did before getting into the program, think there must not be many adult Americans who can't read. How else could they drive a car, shop for groceries, get a job, cope on any of the purely functional levels of our society? the answer is they don't, and I can assure you there are many adults so situated.
According to a literacy survey made in 1973 by the US Office of Education 19. 1 percent of all adults in our nation are functionally illiterate, 33.9 percent are functional but not proficient, and 46.3 percent are proficient. This "adult performance level study" defines functional literacy as "the ability of an adult to apply skills to several major knowledge areas which are important to adult success."
Rachel is probably not typical of most nonreading adults, but the consensus is that there is no typical student. They represent a conglomerate of ages and racial backgrounds, and come from all levels of our society. And when they discover what the Right-to-Read program has to offer and that it is free of charge, their enthusiasm is immeasurable. I am finding it difficult to stay ahead of Rachel on assignments. She pores over her workbooks and copies page after page of any homework given her. And her self-esteem is mounting as she and I both discover how intelligent she is and how quickly she is learning.
The purpose of the Right-to-Read program is "to provide adults 16 years of age and older with help in learning to read and to provide them with a sense of reinforcement and personal attention through this one-to-one tutoring relationship." Recognizing that in order to succeed in life people must have the ability to read. Congress authorized the program in 1970, and made funds available for state and local projects.
The Right-to-Read program is presently using the Laubach method which started 40 years ago and has been constantly developing. It has been successfully used in over a hundred countries. Tutors are encouraged to meet their students at whatever level they find them, and working at one- to-one it becomes a highly personal adventure for both.
Seeing my student respond with such eagerness to learn has brought a very special reward into my life, best expressed by Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher , some 2,600 years ago: If your project is for a year, sow a seed. If it is for ten years, plant a tree. If a hundred, teach the people.