I absolutely love working with children and teaching them new things. Many years ago, likely in my 30’s, I served as a volunteer to teach illiterate adults how to read. It never had occurred to me that when people grow up not knowing how to read, many of them have also missed most of childhood’s best parts. They have missed not only the wonderful children’s books, generally because they had no one to read to them, but they have also missed out on a lot of wonderful childhood experiences, like being able to go trick or treating or making a costume for Halloween, or having someone help them to learn how to carve a pumpkin.
I know many of you wonder how this could happen. Think about the migrant workers, the homeless people (and yes they often have children living with them), and even my own parents never finished high school. So I went to school, but because I could not depend on my parents to be able to help me with my homework, I honestly struggled with understanding how to do my homework, and when a child cannot do well in school, they often also struggle to fit in socially.
I was bullied a lot because I wore clothes from thrift stores, ate day-old bread from the special store that was so cheap in those days, and I did not know how to make friends or talk to others. To top it all off, I quit school in my first year of high school. I had gotten married instead of choosing to go to Germany with my mother and father during the time of the wall I believe. And so I found myself pregnant, and in those days, pregnant girls did not go to school, at least not where I lived.
But some miracles happened for me. Despite the fact that I was extremely shy and had difficulty with school subjects except for writing, I really did love to read. Thank goodness it was something I learned on my own early on, partly from not wanting to go outside and play with the other children because they bullied me at home as well as at school.
Although my mother had taught me absolutely nothing about having children or anything that was physically personal, when my daughter was born, not only did I breast-feed her and my two boys at a time when women really were not doing that, but I read to my children every single night, and I decided to teach my daughter to read when she was close to two years old. I made some little index cards, and on one side, I wrote a word such as hand in big letters, and on the other side I drew a picture of a hand. I showed her the word, and then said the word, and then showed her the picture of the word, and I would also hold up my hand and say the word. No one taught me how to do this. I just figured it out on my own. Now she had a hunger to learn, and I am telling you honestly that she was trying to potty train herself at six months old in one of those little chairs for that purpose, so I guess it was the same way with learning.
One night I had put her to bed, and I had given her the little Golden Books that she liked to have me read to her after I had read her a story. Out in the living room after awhile, I heard her talking in the bedroom, and went in to see what she was reading. She was holding her book and “reading” all the words and turning the pages at the appropriate times. I could not believe what I was hearing! How could she be reading these words when I had not taught those to her yet? I sat beside her and asked her if she would read me the story, and I watched her carefully and to this day, I remember her not missing a single word, but I realized that she wasn’t reading all the words. She had memorized those stories page by page!
I would not be able to follow my children’s education. I will just say that it was truly a traumatic event for me, and shocking for someone still so shy and lacking confidence to try to stick up for myself. I had never smoked, never done drugs, never drank alcohol, or did anything but to be a mother. She was four when they all disappeared. I did not know where they were until some 28 years later, when I located at least my daughter through the Salvation Army, at that time for just $10, after barely two months. I had not been able to provide much information as I suffered from severe amnesia and PTSD. I discovered that she was a published writer, an artist, and even a fine quilter (I did those things too), plus a lot more that I never did (such as riding bicycles in marathons, etc.) She was only four years old the last time I had seen her. We were reunited but I never saw the boys again. They were too young to remember me.
In later years of my life, I would get a degree in Archaeology and just a few years ago one in Criminal Justice, and I would have careers and even my own businesses. But my favorite career of all has been working as a substitute paraeducator, aide and uncertified teacher for special needs children with physical/developmental and emotional challenges. And I became a volunteer senior tutor for illiterate adults, a tutor for children and adults, as well as a mentor/advocate for challenged adults, particularly for artists trying to establish careers.
It was during those years that I learned how illiterate adults not only frequently cannot read if at all at the lowest levels, but they have also missed out on their childhood memories – parents reading to them, helping them to celebrate rites of childhood, or getting to do things many of us take for granted such as trick-or-treating, or even getting to carve a pumpkin or make a costume. In my case I was shy and my parents could not read at a high enough level. They too had missed out on those experiences many children do have so they didn’t know how to do those with us either. We did do some things, but because I was so shy, I didn’t do as many as my brother did.
I think for the remainder of my life, I will tutor illiterate adults when I have an opportunity, and help them experience the things they missed out on earlier in life. And I will volunteer to help others who have some form of physical or other challenges as well. I can honestly say that I don’t regret any part of my life, even those times that were painful spiritually and otherwise. It has all been good. I could not have the compassion I do now for others if I had not struggled my own self. And I will remain a student of the world for the rest of my life too. I love learning, and often as I sit pouring over something I have read, I look back in my mind’s eye and see that little beautiful daughter of mine delightedly memorizing and “reading” herself one of the stories she loved.