The narrative implies that, in the London milieu of a British labour class culture, a competent tradesman and his wife are enjoying the social and economic benefits of a long marriage and a stable business. The business is capable of generating wages and facilitates the training of apprentices. For the woman, marriage has ensured a roof over her head, a bed to sleep in, regular meals to eat, and clothes to wear. She has also learned how to drive, runs errands in the company van and gets invited to tip a pint in the pub with the men after the day's work is done. To the reader comfortable with British social organization and its cultural mores, and to women grateful for its favours and privileges, this may seem like an amiable milieu.
This social and economic scene is one my literacy student and his wife are familiar with. He is also a tradesman. He is a metal worker who learned the trade from his father, and a hydraulic engineer who learned the trade by watching skilled men at work and imitating them. Like the experienced bricklayer and his wife in the story, skill and experience in a trade and a long marriage generated social and economic security and stability for my literacy student and his wife. As it turned out, they also spent several years in England; by their own account, some of the happiest years of their lives.
My student provided economic security for his family as a competent and skilled tradesman even though, using his wife's metaphor, he was "blind" in the world of text. In turn, she raised their children and managed their home, and also performed, by her implication, a kind of reading, writing, speaking, and seeing-eye dog function. She negotiated and translated the world of text for her husband. Now that he has retired after a lifetime of meaningful work and travel, they have decided he needs to learn to read. He wants to read to his grandchildren and she wants him to be able to negotiate the world of text if she gets sick or dies.
They came together to the first tutorial session. I was sensitive to her special duty and invited her to join us. After an orientation, I asked them how they felt about reading together for homework so that he could learn to read more quickly. She spoke first and without hesitation: "All the years we've been married he has never let me help him learn to read." Her words were weighted with years of frustration and spoke of the burden she hoped to shed. Her husband responded by leaning back in his chair, crossing his legs, turning his body away from us and saying "My wife is very educated." His words were a strange blend of pride and cynicism. She set the record straight immediately: "Yes - that's true. But our son-in-law says my husband is very intelligent. He says - he's street-wise." Her husband's body began to relax as he basked in his wife's affirmation. True to the image of the loyal, obedient wife, she had done the right thing. She protected her husband's dignity at her own expense.
I pressed on through the painful emotional fog this discussion on reading and writing had so unexpectedly generated. Earlier they had both agreed that you can really only learn to read by reading a lot; I hoped I could introduce them to the possibility of reading for pleasure, alone or together. So I asked my student's wife if she would observe while I read with her husband, in order that they could model my reading strategy at home. They nodded. We proceeded.
The fog began to lift as we read and they related their happy experiences to the events in the narrative. They both recognized and enjoyed the colloquial expressions of the characters and I contributed what I knew of London through my familiarity with native British literature. Things were going great. I was beginning to take heart. Their willingness to trust my approach and the fun we were having promised some breakthroughs ahead. It wasn't until we had finished reading the whole story that I fully realized the sexist nature of the content.
The narrative explicitly concludes that on-the-job training supplemented with a college education means an easy job and easy money but, whatever you do, don't allow a woman to teach you. I was horrified that in my eagerness to accommodate the learning needs of my student I overlooked the misleading and demoralizing message embedded in the story. Am I not a women and am I not trying to facilitate learning in a man with the help of another women, his wife? And what about all the women in education at the university and in local learning centers and organizations, all the women that I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with in the last four years?