chutzpah, keys, and a toasted tuna on white

I was honoured to attend The Literacy Council of Durham Region awards presentation last night recognizing those adults who, through the Council’s tutoring program, have learned to read in the past year. Also recognizing their tutors.  

What I loved best about the event—aside from the fact that it was beautifully organized with not a moment of wasted time nor long-winded hoo-ha speeches (celebration, respect, warmth and camaraderie were the order of the day)—was that no distinction was made between groups as people were called up to receive their awards; we knew not if the recipient was tutor or student—this effectively sent the message that the process of teaching and learning is equal, that it takes courage and commitment to do either, and that every teacher is a student at some time.

The emotion and pride on every face spoke volumes about the power of the work, the power of words. I watched as people opened certificates at their tables, imagined the impact of not only being able to read words such as recognition or achievement but to know they referred to you.

What I can’t imagine is the stress of a lifetime hiding the fact that you can’t read—at work, in a restaurant, when your kid brings home a card she made for you—or, worse, pretending that you don’t want to. Even less can I imagine the chutzpah it must take to suck it up and say: today I’m going to do something about that… and then really do it, to actually pick up the phone, admit you need help. And then—as if all that’s not tough enough—you show up for lessons and feel, initially, like you’re in kindergarten, trying to understand that r-e-d spells the colour of your shirt.

But you keep going anyway.


And then, one day, you put on a shirt and it’s blue and you can see the word in your head. And when the goodbye card is passed around the office you can not only write your name but what you feel: hey, pal…good luck! You read pasta on a menu and decide you’re not in the mood for spaghetti; you look through the sandwich selection instead, ask for tuna on white, toasted, and when your kid says read me a story, you can.

Susanna Kearsley, one of the invited guests (and a former museum curator), compared the right to read with museum contents kept under lock and key, privy only to the curator. Thing is, she told the audience, we’re all curators of this particular museum and it’s wrong that certain of us are denied the key; we must ask for it, demand it if necessary.

In essence, that’s what last night’s graduates did, took back what was always meant to be theirs. But the effect of their actions goes way beyond what they’ll get out of it; I’m guessing more than one will take the step from student to teacher, if only by not letting anyone they know go without that key…

“Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” ~Abigail Adams