People Who Need to Learn
My conscious awareness of literacy began last year when, as a Globe and Mail feature writer, I did a story on Beat the Street. This Frontier College-assisted literacy program was founded by two ex-cons, Rick Parsons and Tracy LeOuvere. Tracy didn't learn to read until he was in his mid-30s, and had a record as long as both his arms. Rick had been brutalized by a stepfather and relegated to a home for retards.
After the story appeared in the Globe, I volunteered as a tutor in Beat the Street, which was designed for street kids and other people who fall between the cracks. The day I phoned to make my services available, a woman who happened to be in the office at that moment looking for a tutor said she'd take me. Her name was Carole Boudrias. Her label: welfare mother of four.
A week later, I rode my bike over to Carole's lower-Riverdale, government-subsidized house, met her and her four kids, and set to work. She figured she had about a grade three or four literacy level. Her eldest son, Jay then 12, had taught her to read. We sat at her glass-topped dining room table, overlooking a giant TV screen that was always on, and opened her Ontario government correspondence course.
So began an experience that unfolded in the most unexpected, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, ways. I began as a romantic, thinking how wonderful it was that she and I - though so different - could work together. We also had something in common: we both came from dysfunctional families, though my so-called "respectable, middle-class background" provided me with an economic security and a formal education that she had never known.
I had fantasies, I now realize, that Carole would be transformed, that she would become a regular member of society, with a job and an independent life that had so far eluded her. She has survived on welfare all her life, with the exception of two short stints on assembly line jobs, packing pickles and rolling Christmas paper. In contrast, I have worked all my life, in relatively privileged circumstances. I have a university degree, which my parents assumed I would get. I learned to read when I was four years old. I took it for granted. Reading is like walking or breathing for me, and one of my major pleasures. I had never encountered people for whom the reading-writing world was an alien, threatening place. Carole never got read to as a child, and her children rarely get read to. Her son Jay, I soon found out, could barely read a newspaper, felt great anxiety about reading, was in a "special" class, and was contemplating dropping out of school.