Do you remember the first book you ever read? What was it about? How old were you?
Honestly, I don’t remember what book I read or what it was about, but I probably was young… maybe 4 or 5. I don’t even remember learning how to read, it’s just something that came naturally and easily for me.
Last Thursday night, my 53-year old adult literacy student read a book (Dad and Sam) for the first time. That was the first book he had ever read.
53 years of not being able to read a simple children’s book… can you imagine?
I’ve been teaching him since January… months and months of simple phonics, repetitive lessons with words like sad, map, rat, tag, lid, job, hot, pit, nag, rot… months of practicing and homework and flash cards and writing sentences. Months of hard work all paid off on Thursday night.
For some random reason, I picked up a Hooked on Phonics book for my student to try to read in class. And I kind of laughed to myself after seeing how childish and easy it was. Oh if only I knew how much gravity that book would have.
“So we’re done with the lesson but I picked out a book for you. It’s a little kid book so it might be silly but I want you to try to read it.”
“I will try.”
I hand him the book. He looks at the cover, squints, and says, “Dad and… Sam?”
“Yes, great job! Now open it up.”
“What’s this?” he asks pointing to the first page, confused about where to start reading.
“This is called a cover page. See, there’s the title, and the author and illustrator- the person who drew the pictures. What’s the title again?”
“Dad and Sam.”
“Good. Now flip the page.”
“Dad h-a-d… Dad had a …hat.”
“Yes! Keep going.”
Pages were turned. Simple sentences were read. And when he finished the last sentence and closed the book, he hunkered his shoulders, lowered his head into his hands, and started sobbing.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted out through the tears.
I was in shock for a few moments… “It’s ok, don’t apologize. You just did something amazing, A. You read a book! You did so great.” I patted his shoulder, in hopes to comfort and encourage him.
His sobbing continued so I grabbed a box of tissues. He took one… two… three… trying to compose himself and wipe the tears from his face. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
I let him take his time. I didn’t want to ask questions or press him to read it again but when he picked up the book I quietly asked, “do you want to read it again?”
“Yes. Dad and Sam…”
The second time after finishing, he put the book down, took a deep breath, and covered his mouth as if he wanted to stop the inevitable words from coming out.
“You know… it’s been hard. I’ve lived a hard life. Nobody except my ex-wife knew about my… my disability. I haven’t let it hold me back though… I’ve had lots of good jobs and I know lots of skills, but I can’t read. If you ever have kids stick with them and teach them to read. I didn’t have that and I couldn’t do that for my son and it’s been so hard…”
I let him talk, vent, confide some of his hardships and past experiences to me. He went on for nearly twenty minutes, bringing me to tears a few times because of the pain with which he said the words “my disability.”
“You should be really proud of yourself, you know. I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you. And I thank you for all you do. I couldn’t have done this without you. I thank you for your time.”
That’s when I started crying again. Hearing how thankful he was for my help, especially after he had told me how hard his life had been because of his disability.
After we had both composed ourselves and said our goodbyes until the next class, I sat in the room still in shock about what had happened… about how lightly I had taken the whole ‘reading a book’ thing, and about how harsh the word disability sounded coming from his mouth.
Illiteracy is a form of a disability, but I hate hearing someone say that. Illiteracy holds you back in so many ways… more ways than I can even imagine. My student (and others at the center where I serve & volunteer) can’t look at a menu in a restaurant, can’t read street signs, can’t read his own mail. I can’t imagine living in a world without literacy. Without the ability to read. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about volunteering and helping A learn to read and write. I’m passionate about giving him the gift of literacy… about turning his so-called disability into an ability.
My student read a book for the first time at 53-years old. And that’s just the beginning. He will read many, many more books during our time working together, and far into the future. Soon, A’s disability will become his ability. I can’t wait to see just how much this will help his life and change him as a person. I can’t wait to see the excitement on his face when he finishes his second book. I can’t wait to hear him read more books.
You’re never too old to learn to read your first book.