About a year ago, Resonja Willoughby had a bum knee. She went to her doctor and sat in the X-ray room alone. As she waited, she eyed the mechanical equipment above her, focusing in on a sticker that had a long word in big black letters.
“I started crying right there in the doctor’s office,” Willoughby recalled. “Radiation! I sounded it out and said it again. … I’d seen the word before, but I’d ignored it, looked right over it, didn’t even want to try and read it.”
The forty-year-old got a laugh from the memory: “I’m sitting there, tears coming down my face, and I got on the phone and called my sister, my kids, my family — I called everybody — and I told them what just happened.”
What had just happened was the payoff after seven years of attending Oakland Public Library’s Second Start literacy program, which pairs adults with volunteer reading tutors. When Willoughby first arrived at the downtown library asking for help, she tested below a fifth-grader’s reading level. She couldn’t read freeway signs or fill out job applications. “I was worn out,” she said. “I was tired. Tired of hiding, and tired of not knowing how to read.”
The first day is the hardest. “When I walked in, I didn’t want anyone to know I couldn’t read,” Willoughby laughed. She has four young children, and wanted to get past jobs washing dishes and scrubbing floors. “It’s like that for all of us. We’re embarrassed, you know. But you’ve got to get over yourself.”
Oakland’s Second Start program has been around since 1984. In this city, illiteracy is particularly troubling. An estimated one in four English-speaking adults — approximately eighty thousand residents — can neither write clearly nor fully understand what they read, according to city stats. Of those, only about two hundred students are currently enrolled in Second Start. Regardless, finding enough tutors is always a challenge, as are the Pollyannaish expectations of prospective volunteers. “Sometimes people have an idea that they’ll come in here and read fireside to adults,” said Kelly Frasier, Willoughby’s tutor the past three years. “It’s not like that at all. These readers are far away from reading for pleasure.”
Second Start’s purpose is to give adults reading skills that will help them function in everyday life. The thing is, most illiterate adults already have developed ingenious strategies for maneuvering in the world without reading skills. There’s a student who owns a downtown nail salon, Frasier said; a mechanic who can disassemble and reassemble an engine by memory; a bus driver; an R&B singer who has put out a CD; and a gentleman who has worked 25 years as a supervisor at Gerber Baby Foods.
Like Willoughby, they’ve managed by heightening their other senses: You can’t read, so you listen closely. “You ask the bus driver to call out the stop,” Willoughby said. “You hear the words ‘Texas Street,’ so that’s where you get off.” On a drive from Oakland to Sacramento to visit family, you keep your eyes laser-focused for green exit signs that contain a set of symbols that resemble the word S-A-C-R-A-M-E-N-T-O.
When you ask for directions, you use landmarks instead of street names — “Turn right after the fire station? Take a left after the school?”
To job interviews, you bring a mock application that your brother filled out before you left the house. When the time comes to fill out the real application, you painstakingly copy the letters onto what you hope are the correct lines.
After a while, it’s too much work. Willoughby landed a dishwashing job, which suited her just fine, but did so well her boss offered a promotion to waitress, where she could make more money. She took the floor the first day, tried jotting down orders in a chicken-scratch, and quit the next day in embarrassment. “I couldn’t spell ‘yam,'” she said.
Her next job as a janitor started out okay. She studied her trainer’s movements closely. He poured stuff from the purple container into the yellow bucket, so she did too. Once she was on her own, her boss offered more responsibilities, and with them, more pay. He told her to make some buffer by mixing a batch of chemicals. Since Willoughby didn’t want to chance it — lest she blow herself up, she imagined — she quit. She couldn’t fake it much longer. So she showed up at Second Start.
The problem for Willoughby, as for so many new adult readers, Frasier said, was that she lacked “phonemic awareness.” Adults who have minimal reading skills can key in on a few words they know and figure out a sentence by context. For instance, an adult learner might take a look at the sentence “I’d like you to be my pal” and not sweat it. They’ll get to the end and notice the P-word — the only one they don’t know — and figure out it’s “pal” after mentally scrolling through the options — pail, pearl, pill — for the only logical answer.
Give an adult learner a straight list of P-words and they won’t have it so easy, Frasier noted. Without context, the stand-alone words “pen,” “pal,” and “pill” can freeze a tongue. Willoughby was a classic case. Take the word “anxious.” Give it to her at the end of a sentence — “I feel anxious” — and she’d nail it every time. Tuck it into a list of A-words, and the pronunciation would be guessed at, hoped for, mangled.
“You can almost see the word go in her head just fine the way it is, then break up, and it doesn’t come out together,” her tutor noted.
That’s why reading “radiation” with no other words around it felt so good to Willoughby.
Willoughby and Frasier are working on a collection of short nonfiction stories about the student’s experiences at Second Start. It can take her an hour to hammer out a clean paragraph. Each word still gets scrutinized, reexamined, and slowly pronounced aloud. After grappling with nine or ten words in a row, the meaning of a sentence tends to get lost. Then it’s back to the start.
Frasier stumbled into the volunteer tutor gig. Part of her if-I-win-the-lottery fantasy had included quitting her job to teach adults how to read. She didn’t win the Lotto, but one day as she shelved books at her library job, a customer asked about the literacy program. He said he was dyslexic and stuck at a third-grade reading level. She made a deal on the spot: If he would join the literacy program, she would volunteer. “It was a case where people don’t know they changed your life,” she said.
She’d been volunteering a year before she was partnered with Willoughby. The two have grown close over the past three years. They’ve had their arguments, but also their laughs. After all, when they get stuck on the long O sound, they turn to each other and make what amounts to monkey faces.” When you see each other doing that,” Frasier said, “a bond develops.”
Since she joined, Willoughby has picked up her driver’s license and her GED. Last year, three of Second Start’s students passed their driver’s license test; sixteen read a newspaper for the first time; eleven subscribed to a newspaper; eight opened an e-mail account; four voted; and three wrote letters to a politician.
And Willoughby was awarded the state’s California Literacy Award for Literacy Student Poetry. Here’s what she wrote:
Reading to me is like breathing to you.
I hold my breath as I listen closely to every phonic sound that comes out of Kelly’s mouth.
It’s like listening to a racing heartbeat, pumping as if it would emerge straight out of my chest.