Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Stumbling blocks

All of us encounter stumbling blocks in the course of our lives. There's an endlessly wide variety of obstacles available for us humans to bump up against, and they don't seem to have been distributed even-handedly; some folks have to struggle harder than others. The ability to navigate successfully through life in spite of those obstacles is a mark of character strength I find admirable and inspirational.

I just finished reading today's entry on Janet's "Ordinary Life" blog. It's an honest, thought-provoking post about one particular facet of her life that doesn't slow her down, but can occasionally trip her up.

Janet's post made me think about things I take for granted and how the inability to use any one of my "tools" for living could throw a monkey wrench into my life in ways I'd never imagined. All that thinking made me remember somebody I knew a long time ago.

For one year in the early '80s I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor through the "Operation Upgrade" program in Baton Rouge. (There was a reason why I decided to do this, but I'll save that story for another day.)

The student assigned to work with me was Leland (not his real name). He was a handsome young man, 28 years old, who earned his living working on road crews. He'd made it through the 10th grade without learning to read. "Coach took care of his athletes," he said.

Leland wanted a better job. He had a baby daughter from a relationship that had ended, and he wanted to be able to read to her. He wanted a stable relationship with a good woman who could be proud of him. He wanted a lot of things, and he knew that the first step toward meeting his goals was to learn to read.

I could write a lot about our twice-a-week lessons, but I'll focus this post on one specific class, a couple of months into our time together. Leland showed up that night looking more depressed than I'd ever seen him.

The night before, he told me, he'd ridden with friends to a small town half an hour north of Baton Rouge. They'd stopped for gas and a soft drink, and he'd noticed a really pretty girl who was gassing up her car at the next pump. She'd noticed him, too, and had given him a big smile.

Leland walked up to the girl and struck up a conversation, but he'd said only a few words when she raised her hand and signaled him to stop speaking. Puzzled, he watched her take a pen and paper from her purse. Gently shaking her head, she touched two fingers to her ear and then to her lips, indicating she couldn't hear or speak. Still smiling, she extended the paper and pen to Leland so he could write out his message to her. But Leland couldn't write.

He said he was caught off guard and didn't know what to do. He couldn't think of any way to explain his predicament to her. So, he told me, he just smiled, shook his head "no," and tapped his forefinger against the face of his watch, pretending he didn't have time to write a note. He said she looked confused, her big smile gone, as he gave her a friendly wave and hurried to join his friends inside the building.

It had gnawed at him all night and all day. The thing that got to him the most, the thing that almost brought tears to his eyes as he told me about it, was concern for the girl's feelings. He said she must have known he was interested in the beginning, and she probably thought it was her handicap (when actually it was his own) that made him change his mind about getting acquainted with her. He said his inability to read hadn't hurt anyone but himself up until that point, but now it had caused him to hurt someone else. He said he'd never felt so low in his whole life.

To me, the story of Leland's encounter with the pretty girl at the gas station was the most ironic tale I'd heard since my childhood encounter with O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi". In fact, I think Leland's story might have been even more ironic than O. Henry's. There's no question it had a sadder ending.


  1. Did Leland finally learn to read? I hope he kept up with it and did not get discouraged. I think his encounter with the girl may have reinforced his desire to learn to read. Some coach, huh?

    I think I mentioned my son has dyslexia. He has compensated by sheer memorization. He has a tremendous sight vocabulary that provides the context to help him work around the words he doesn't know. He just started college and I will be on pins and needles until we get his first GPA.

    I always told him EVERYONE has areas of talent and areas that need work. Also, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I think he will be ok (if he doesn't drink himself into oblivion!)

    Thank you for the pointer to Janet's blog.

  2. You are a font of stories that touch me. Thank you.

  3. Leland's story will be with me for some time. I do hope he went on the learn to read.

    My father, the only son in a poor farming family, was expected to stay home and work while his sisters "got schooling." His reading skills were extremely basic yet he found a way to make a fairly comfortable living for us. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized his gruff demeanor was simply false bravado to hide his insecurities. In his later years he made some half-hearted efforts to improve but I suppose it was just too much work after 70 years or so of getting by.

  4. That was a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing it.

    Sometimes it takes an encounter like that, one that hits home, to spur us on to make something better of ourselves.

  5. so very sad that people can't read. there is a world of joy yhey are cut off from.

  6. How sad and beautiful at the same time. I'm sure he did learn to read, he would never have wanted to cause that kind of pain to another person again.

  7. WWhat a sad tale Velvet, and yet it is also one filled with promise and hope.
    As Kat says I'm sure that chance meeting spurred him on. We all think we have problems until we try to see life through another's eyes. I hope the young girl someho understood that it was not her fault, that is sad too.

  8. Sunflower, good luck to your son. And I must tell you, the parenthetical remark at the end of your comment reminded me of a friend of a friend, whose first language was not English, who said one day that she was so tired she was going to go home and drink herself into Bolivia.;-)

    Duly Inspired, I'm glad you like stories as much as I do.

    Hale Fire Glass, thank you for sharing the story of your father. Good for him for trying at all in his later years; I'm sure it was more difficult then.

    Janet, that event did hit home with "Leland." I was so touched that he cared so much about hurting the girl, but then I thought, well, he IS a guy, after all. He'll probably get over it without much more difficulty than if he'd told her he'd call her and then didn't do it.

    Patsy, it is sad. There are also a lot of people who CAN read but don't read for pleasure. Maybe you have to get hooked early for it to be a lifelong joy.

    Kat and Sandy, let's hope I was being too cynical in my previous response to Janet's comment.

    Thanks to all of you for taking the time to share your thoughts, and welcome to first time commenters, Hale Fire Glass and Kat Campbell. I hope you'll come again.


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