‘She Was Told She Was Too Old To Learn’

by Robbin Wingfield-Street
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photo courtesy of Phil: 443-506-1812
PROUD READER: Terry has overcome a learning disability through one-on-one tutoring at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. For information on literacy or English as a Second Language instruction, or to become a tutor, call 261-3500.

You’re too old to learn,” lamented 19-year-old Roberta to her mother Terry when Terry said she wanted to learn to read. The 42-year-old single mother of two disagreed. Her aunt had seen a television public service ad about the Greater Homewood Community Corporation (GHCC)’s adult literacy program and had given Terry the number. Terry made the call.

“I’ve waited all of my life for something like this,” Terry says three years later. She’s still learning—reading, math, English, World History and Social Studies. “I’ve come a long way,” she says, and her tutor agrees.

Terry found out a year ago that she has a learning disability, although she had managed to graduate from a vocational high school. “When I found out I had a learning disability I felt sad, but I also knew that I was not the only one in the world with a problem,” she says.

Terry had attended night classes with other students, but found it difficult. “I couldn’t keep up,” she recalls. A staff member at Greater Homewood suggested she pursue one-to-one assistance.

Such individualized tutoring is a staple at Greater Homewood, a non-profit organization helping to strengthen community organizations in 40 Baltimore neighborhoods.

And if one-to-one tutoring is what it takes to get a student to learn, then Alice Williams has no problem with it. She is Terry’s tutor. They meet for three hours every Monday and Wednesday in the basement of University Baptist Church on North Charles Street, opposite the Hopkins Homewood campus.

Ms. Williams’ and Terry’s congenial relationship is obvious to any observer. “Ms. Alice is the love of my life,” giggles Terry, hugging her.

Their classroom is a small room with a desk and two chairs facing a green chalkboard. A bookcase holds a large dictionary, two chalkboard erasers, and a coffee mug. The barely furnished room doesn’t faze the two women, because they’re on a mission that doesn’t involve externals: reading.

Ms. Williams, a slender woman with silver hair, is from a generation where volunteering is the natural thing to do. “Back in the days of being a homemaker and talking to an audience of people just three feet tall,” she explains, “called for another outlet.” She says she has been volunteering all her life, joining Greater Homewood’s adult literacy program two years ago after retiring as a government worker. Her motivation was simple: “Everyone needs to know how to read.”

The lessons go beyond reading however. Since Terry isn’t proficient at math, Ms. Williams teaches Terry not only basic math skills, but also practical matters. “Terry couldn’t count,” says Ms. Williams, “so I thought there was no better way to start than for Terry to learn to count her own money.”

Terry was recently re-tested to measure her progress. She started the program reading on a second grade level, had has progressed to reading on a third- to fourth-grade level. “I did well, to my surprise,” she says proudly.

Thanks to the occasional field trip to the library, Terry now reads all the time. “My favorite books are Dr. Seuss,” she says enthusiastically. “I’m now also able to read books about famous blacks in history,” including Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Lately she’s been reading The Cabin Faced West, by Jean Fritz. “It’s quite an accomplishment, considering its a fourth grader’s book,” said Ms. Williams.

Terry’s next step, says Ms. Williams, is to “read and comprehend her own mail.” “She would bring in all of her official letters from social services and have me read them to her, but the last one she got, she read it herself and understood it.” “Yes, I read it myself,” chimes in Terry, “and I have Ms. Alice to thank for that.”

The two celebrate each milestone Terry makes by going out to lunch. “Ms. Alice has taken me to some fine restaurants,” says Terry—but only after she completes various lessons in a series of Laubach workbooks, a nationally recognized scale-system approach to adult reading.

In addition to these one-to-one social activities with Ms. Williams, Terry enjoys Greater Homewood’s picnic potlucks, which include everyone in the adult literacy program and the companion English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. All participants are encouraged to bring a dish and share their stories. “I especially like these,” said Terry, “because the students of ESOL bring their native dishes and the food is really good.”

As Terry talks about the great experiences she’s had at Greater Homewood, Ms. Williams looks on like a proud mother seeing her daughter in her first school play. “Terry has had a life packed with tremendous trials and setbacks, but she keeps chugging on,” says Ms. Williams admiringly. “All of Terry’s life she was told she was stupid and dumb, and she used to believe it.”

“My life was dark when I didn’t know how to read,” Terry agrees with a warm smile, “but now a whole new world has opened up to me, and I love it.”

Now that Terry is confident of her reading ability, she volunteers three days a week herself, as a dietary assistant at the Park Heights Center of St. Ambrose Church. “I love giving something back,” says Terry. In fact, Terry’s career goal is to become a dietician.

“With her strong determination to succeed, she’ll make it,” Ms. Williams says with obvious pride.

“My daughters are very proud of me, also,” Terry says. Roberta, who at the outset thought her mother was “too old to learn,” is very happy for her mother, as is Aisha, her older daughter. Bothyoung women are students at Baltimore City Community College. “We get along well,” Terry says, “and they help me out a lot.”

The lesson continues. Ms. Williams gently coaches Terry to sound out words; the familiar words take Terry only a few seconds to remember, but the unfamiliar ones present a challenge. They’re reading a newspaper story about an upcoming event at the Inner Harbor. Amistad is coming to Baltimore—a replica, that is.

Terry starts off reading remarkably well, but then got stuck on two unfamiliar words. Ms. Williams works with her ever so patiently. “Sound it out,” she coaches, as Terry stares at the words. Triumphantly, she gets through them. Ms. Williams ends the reading by giving Terry a brief history lesson about Amistad, explaining that the ship’s name is Spanish for “friendship.”

Terry smiles and nods in understanding as the day’s session ends with this accent on friendship.

Greater Homewood Community Corporation’s Adult Literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Programs serve 450 area residents through one-to-one tutoring and small-group instruction in basic reading, writing, math, and English language skills. One hundred and sixty volunteers spend a total of 5,500 hours volunteering each year. More volunteers are needed, however. If you can lend a hand, please contact the Greater Homewood Community Corporation at 261-3500.

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This story was published on December 5, 2001.