Poetry for Literacy (Part I)

It was the early ‘60s. They were the last group of American adults who were illiterate simply because they hadn’t gone to school. And they worked as domestics in an affluent community so their ability to attend classes varied: some were off every Thursday and Monday evening, some only Thursdays, some every other Monday evening. Those days off made the suburban train station an unwelcome gathering place. So a local bank donated a meeting room and a couple of teachers at the local school volunteered to teach reading in what became an experiment in adult literacy education with no books, no established techniques, and no systematic approach. I entered this mayhem with my newly minted Master’s degree in remedial and developmental reading and a social commitment reflecting MLK’s influence. Those students taught me lessons that shaped my professional and creative life for the next half century. This is the first of a series of essays about the teaching of literacy, the work that remains closest to my heart.

Like all people learning to read, the adults in that course revealed very quickly that their intellectual capacity greatly exceeded their ability figure out what the words say. Every preschooler, every new immigrant, every dyslexic person shares the problem: they have trouble reading The Cat in the Hat but can discuss complex ideas about good and evil, politics, and family life. Because no interesting reading matter was available at their levels, I faced the challenge of finding pieces whose simplicity of language belies the depth of their ideas. Just like the adults in the literacy classes!

Along came Langston Hughes, one of the poets who chose to write in the vernacular rather than the classical language of earlier scribes. His simple language, easily accessible even to early adult readers, talks of big ideas: witness lines like,

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

With only one two syllable word, these lines and the poem from which they come give us enough to think about and talk about for weeks. They invite us to revisit and reflect upon the ideas and read again.

The classes went very well: we figured out how to set up a page for each person and craft an individual program; if someone missed a few weeks, their class could pick up where it left off.

On the first day of class, most of the students didn’t know where to begin when asked to write their own name. And they suffered: Pearlie May had a permanent chip on her shoulder and described ugly encounters she didn’t know how to deal with. Her illiteracy was so deep that she couldn’t take or deliver a message. It turned out that her hostility reflected only that she didn’t have the words to deal with the world: as the ability to read and write grew, the sweet temperament emerged. Some proved brilliant: Hattie went from illiteracy to reading the Hughes’s Simple stories and writing literary critiques.

And Emma, although she ran a large estate and was a renowned cook, never mastered more than the most basic literacy: she was the first dyslexic I’d met and the inspiration for my doctoral studies and lifelong interest in the “black swans” of literacy, the dyslexic and the highly gifted.

The group gave a poetry reading for the other adult classes in the community: each chose a favorite poem and practiced the art of oral reading. The evening proved a great success and brought one big surprise: Emma decided instead of reading her choice to sing it: The Weary Blues of course is the song played “… With his ebony hands on each ivory key…”  With her adult wisdom, she fully understood.