A Vital Tool 

The Memphis Literacy Council is bringing the city's illiterate out of the darkness.

"It's like stumbling. It's like you are constantly stumbling. You know what you want to say, but you can't say it. All of a sudden, you come to a word that you can't read, that you can't figure out. You just can't find it."

That's how one student of the Memphis Literacy Council (MLC) describes his experience with illiteracy. The MLC, located at 902 S. Cooper in Midtown, helps about 400 people like him each week. Classes include basic reading, math, geography, and life-skills courses with the aim of helping those with an 8th-grade reading level or less.

The literacy training is done mostly by MLC-trained volunteers in a facility which boasts eight private tutor rooms, three small classrooms for group instruction, and a computer lab with 11 workstations.

The goal of the MLC is to teach people to read at the level that they want to read. According to executive director Gay Johnston, the goals have to reflect the wishes of the readers. She says, "We would be a failure if we tried to put people through academic course-work [alone]. That's the difference from traditional education. Literacy is linked so closely with people's lives. It doesn't live in isolation, literacy lives in connection with a human life."

The MLC attracts new clients for three reasons, according to Johnston. The first is to increase the chances of getting jobs or job promotions. Johnston believes that people who come to the MLC are capable of doing the work but are afraid that any upward mobility would expose their reading weaknesses. "I've heard stories over the years of men who had jobs and were the perfect kind of worker: never sick, loyal, worked hard, worked overtime, and never complained. When they were offered a promotion, they left the company. It was a fear of not being able to handle the new job."

The second reason that people go to the MLC is because they want to help their children. "Their children bring things home from school and the parents don't feel comfortable helping them. We have learned that literacy begins at home," Johnston says. "We used to just ask [new students] about school experience. What you realize is that most of these adults come from families that didn't read, with parents that weren't well-educated, with no books at home." In addition to teaching parents, the MLC also sponsors a book-drive, where parents can get new children's books for their family if they promise to read them with their children.

The third reason is simply to gain self-reliance. "We need to be doing what it is that helps people have a better quality of life," says Johnston. "Sometimes that means something as simple as not having to rely on someone else to read your mail to you. One of my favorite stories is about this lady who was afraid to throw away her mail because she thought there might be something very important that she might need later. So she stacked boxes and boxes of mail in her back room. After about two years in this program, she felt like she could sit down and sort through it."

To say that the MLC deals with a needy population is an understatement. "If someone sits down with the front page of the Flyer," Johnston says, "and knows what the headlines on the major stories are, then they're probably too advanced a reader for our program."

The anonymous student quoted above has only been in a reading class for a year, but has since written two books of poetry that were bound by the MLC. And he's not finished. "Hopefully," he says, "I would like to go on to college and pursue a writing career."

Johnston attributes such success to the hard work of students and the efforts of the volunteer work force. "I work with wonderful volunteers whose motivation is to really help somebody," she says. "I think that when you match up a volunteer who has some good training and the ability to meet someone as a full human being, good things can happen. I've been here for over 20 years and I'm really pleased to see that that sort of social conscience continues and flourishes."

That doesn't mean that the MLC is covering as much as it wants to cover. Though unable to give details, Johnston says that the council's adult and family projects will soon expand. In addition, Johnston is hoping to help the growing Hispanic population.

Educating the public, Johnston believes, is a core challenge for the MLC. "We look down our noses at people who don't read very well," she says. "We approach them in a different way, one that intimidates them. Not long ago, I was at a local hospital and they were concerned about asking their patients to sign consent forms. They were working with homeless people who were not well-educated. They asked me, 'How do I talk to a person like that?' I told them, 'You talk to them just like you would talk to anyone else.'

"Literacy isn't a good or bad thing," she concludes, "but a tool people need to better their lives."

For more information on reading classes, call the MLC at 327-6000.

You can e-mail Chris Przybyszewski at chris@memphisflyer.com.

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