89: Devon’s Story

89: Devon’s Story

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Devon’s Story

To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.

~Victor Hugo

It was a cold, snowy day in January when I first met Devon at a local branch of the public library. Married with three children, he was a large man, dressed in a scruffy duffle coat that was open at the neck, exposing the ragged collar of his green flannel shirt. He thrust his hand out to shake mine and smiled.

“Nice to meet you, Miss June,” he said. “I’m fifty years old and I never learned to read when I was a boy. But now I want to know everything.”

Devon’s eagerness was infectious. We quickly got to work using the library’s literacy program materials. He could write his name and knew some capital letters but wasn’t able to recognize simple words, such as “the” and “at.”

We met for two hours each week, reviewing the alphabet with flash cards and stringing letters together to form simple words. He laughed at the passages about a bumbling man named Sam and his no-nonsense wife Pat. He would take the stories home and study them diligently.

When he got to the point where he could read these stories and other more challenging texts, he confessed to me something he’d wanted to do for a while.

“Do you think I could read to my three-year-old daughter now?”

We scoured the library for children’s stories he could manage, such as Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. He later told me that his daughter was so happy to spend time sitting on his lap and reading books before bed every night.

As well as literacy, we worked on numeracy—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. He also wanted to learn how to tell time on a clock face.

“Miss June, what are the little dots between the numbers for?”

When I explained they represented minutes, his eyes lit up.

“Nobody never told me that before,” he said, grinning.

Because Devon was the one responsible for the food shopping, he brought in grocery store flyers to figure out which items were on sale and which ones were bargains.

Devon noticed a single bottle of water cost seventy-five cents. “That is a good price,” he said.

I pointed to a sale item. “What about this package of eight, same-size bottles of water for $4.00?”

“That’s too much money.”

“Is it? How much for each one?”

He did the calculation and figured out that the bottles cost fifty cents apiece. He looked up at me and said: “Them is tricky, eh?”

In the spring, the city was holding an election. On TV, Devon had been watching the candidates’ debates and he told me he had a good feeling about one of the contenders.

“Devon, have you ever voted?”

“No, Miss June.”

Together, we called to find out how he could register, where his polling station was located and what help was available. It turned out that an official could read out the candidates’ names and instruct him where to mark his ballot. When his candidate won, he was thrilled.

As well as reading books, Devon loved reading lyrics to his favorite songs. That’s when I learned that he was a musician and he wanted me to help him write down the lyrics to his reggae compositions. Secretly he had always wanted to submit his music for copyright, which meant he had to write a letter and address the envelope. We walked to the mailbox and he dropped the envelope in.

“That feel good, Miss June. I never do that before!”

Devon grew bolder. He asked me to help him learn how to use an ATM. When he saw a printout of his account transactions, he was annoyed to see how his wife and teenage son spent money on frivolous charges, such as extra ATM fees and Internet games. A few weeks later, he told me he had taken them to task.

“I talked to my wife. She no like that I know. But now she know I no put up with that no more.”

In December, almost one year to the day that we began our time together, Devon texted me: “Morning miss June. Have the flue so I cannot make it to day.”

I wrote back to say I was sorry he wasn’t feeling well. But I was far from sorry to see those beautiful words typed out on the screen.

~June Rogers Flahie

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