60: Learning Life’s Language

60: Learning Life’s Language

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Learning Life’s Language

Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.

~Vernon Howard

I was twenty-five years old when my first relationship ended. I was young enough to feel like I would never get over the heartache, yet old enough to realize that I must keep busy and not sit around moping. So I boarded an uptown subway train and headed to midtown after work one evening.

A few days earlier, I had seen a flyer in the subway calling for volunteer literacy tutors. I vaguely thought about helping others, but mostly the posting intrigued me because the weekly stint was held in the cafeteria of Colgate-Palmolive in a landmark modernist building on Park Avenue.

That location was worlds apart from my work with graphic designers and illustrators in a crumbling Tribeca loft that was stifling in the summers and barely heated in the winters. And what I needed during my time of transition was something new.

On that first night, I figured we first-time volunteer tutors would just hear a presentation and maybe fill out some paperwork. Instead, the volunteer coordinator ushered me to a “student” table filled with men and women who looked twice my age. I recognized one guy from my subway ride.

I was struck by the fact that none of the students were from other countries. They all spoke English with heavy New York accents like mine. I excused myself from the table and pulled the coordinator aside.

“Excuse me but I thought these people needed to learn English,” I whispered.

“They do,” he said, “but not as a second language.” He could see I was perplexed so he pointed to the workbook he had given me. “This is a literacy class. These are all native English speakers who haven’t learned to read or write at an adult level.”

“How could that be?” I gestured back over to the table. The students were all reasonably well-dressed individuals. One woman had a cardigan sweater buttoned over her fast-food restaurant uniform. A physically fit man wore a jacket that identified him as a youth swim coach at the Y.

I pointed at one man who was browsing the scores in the sports section of The New York Post. “Surely they went to school.”

The coordinator sighed with exasperation and led me by the arm back to the student table. In a loud voice he said, “Your past circumstances do not matter. All that matters is that you are here now — to learn from each other.”

He added that last part more for my benefit than theirs. But I got it. This wasn’t an “English as a Second Language” class for foreigners.

I took my seat and we began by introducing ourselves. None of the adults were indigent or homeless. They all had jobs. Most had families. One person even owned his house in Queens.

One woman cleaned offices; another woman repaired watches at a jewelry store. One guy was a bike messenger (which was a bustling occupation in the pre-Internet days of the 1990s), and another man was applying for medallion insurance for a taxicab.

We opened the workbook and it was heartbreaking to watch each, in turn, struggle to read at a fifth-grade level. For whatever reasons, they had never mastered reading and writing in school, even though they were highly articulate individuals. But being New Yorkers, they had a grasp of money and arithmetic at an Ivy League level!

These were intelligent and successful people. Yet if I didn’t know them and had just encountered them briefly in my daily life, I probably would have labeled them as “stupid” because they couldn’t read. I was embarrassed to realize that despite my college education, I was the stupid one.

A fire lit within me.

My life’s journey has taken me far from that modernist cafeteria in New York City. But in the ensuing twenty years, I have never once stopped being a volunteer literacy tutor. I am that passionate about it. And to this day, I begin every tutoring session by saying: “Your past circumstances do not matter. All that matters is that we are here now — to learn from each other.”

~Yvonne Pesquera

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