Sherry came to me through the Laubach Literacy Lab. It was the late 1980’s and I’d gotten the grand idea that I’d like to tutor adult non-readers, so I’d devoted one weekend to learning the Laubach method. My first student was a middle-aged man who drove a truck for a local plumbing business. After working with him for a month or two and inviting him to the comfort of my kitchen table, I discovered that his brother is incarcerated at the Idaho Correctional Facility for 1st degree murder. He was a respectful and motivated student, and he tried hard, but life got in the way. He worked too many long hours and had too many problems at home to be able to study. He wore coke-bottle glasses and I always wondered what he was really thinking as he sounded out the words to stories about old west gangsta’s like Wild Bill Hickok. I was relieved when he announced that he simply wouldn’t be able to come any more.
Several months later a woman from Laubach called. She had a student who was desperate for a teacher and she was sure I’d be perfect. I was not so sure. My plate was heaped over the edges already. The lady was persistent and informed me that the very best volunteers are always the most busy volunteers—the ones who claimed they absolutely had no time left to squeeze in another responsibility. I sighed. The only way I’d be able to get my ear off the phone was to consent to working with this new student.
A few days later, Sherry called and we agreed to meet at the Copper Kitchen by the airport. I looked up to see a slip of a girl approaching my table. Our eyes met and I smiled and stood up to greet her.
“Are you Sherry?”
“Hi, Sherry, its nice to meet you. I’m Linda.”
We chatted for a while, exploring each other’s soul like a couple on a blind date. Sherry was soft-spoken but energetic and enthusiastic. Her blue eyes sparkled and fearlessly held my gaze. She described her early education as a series of interruptions and missed opportunities—new schools and unstable parents. She had managed to graduate from high school, mostly due to the “kindness” of teachers who recognized how hard she was trying and provided her with extra credit and “breaks.” I thought to myself: an education killed with kindness.
Her goal, she stated with conviction, was to go to college. She wasn’t sure what she would major in, but she wanted desperately to have a diploma. She was already on probation at BSU and knew she needed to do something different. Her partner, a sophomore art major, had tried to help her but Sherry admitted that this was stressful to their relationship. She handed me a folded square of lined notebook paper. “I figured you’d need to get a feel for where I am, so I wrote a bit about my life.”
I started to unfold the sheet, but she suggested I read it later. We agreed to meet again the following week. She smiled disarmingly as she got up to leave. “See you next week,” she said over her shoulder.
I sat there with my cold coffee and read her penciled bio. Her handwriting was lovely and even. Her word choice was conversational and eloquent despite misspellings one might expect from a third-grader. The first word of her essay was capitalized. There was a period after the last word on the back side of the page. In between was a vast ocean without landmarks, describing a childhood marked by the divorce of her parents, their remarriage, and then another separation. It appeared that Sherry was her father’s little helper—his little girl and stand-in for a son. She shared his love of motorcycles, cars, camping, and hunting. He, in turn, relied on her to help him whenever he needed a second pair of hands. He’d thought nothing of hauling her out of school two months before summer break. Often, in the fall she started school after her dad limited out his hunting tags—several weeks into the new semester.
The hairs on my arms prickled as I read her frank account of a failed attempt at college and the failure of her first lesbian romance, followed by an attempted suicide, and then hospitalization and months of recuperation from the bullet wound to her stomach. The story seemed too fantastic to be true, but I sensed a deep sincerity behind her frankness and lack of self pity. I forgot about how busy I was and threw myself into lesson plans and strategies.
The Laubach board member who’d called me was convinced that Sherry was dyslexic. At that time, dyslexia was the convenient whipping boy for most non-reading adults. I knew a little about the disability, but not much. The Laubach method of repetition, picture association, and a ladder of success, boasted a high achievement rate among adult dyslexic learners. I went to the library to research dyslexia and prepared our first lesson based upon the dyslexia assumption.
Beginning with the basics, I discovered that Sherry had no problem with the alphabet. She recognized all of the letters and their associated sounds. Reading a list of one and two syllable words was no problem for her. I began to question the diagnosis. She rarely swapped d’s for b’s, 6’s for 9’s, p’s for q’s. She was quite adept at phonetically sounding out words.
The more we worked together, the more I began to imagine a pattern: Little Sherry comes to a new school two weeks after the session began. All the kids stare curiously. They’ve completed summer review sessions and moved on to new material. But Sherry didn’t even finish the last month of school the previous spring. As the kids read aloud from their Dick and Jane books, little Sherry panics. She counts ahead to see which paragraph will be hers. She starts sounding the words silently— but all of a sudden the spotlight is there! Its her turn to read aloud in front of these strange kids. She’s embarrassed to read slowly so she rushes, skipping the little words and clutching the big words like lifeboats scattered across the paragraph. She gets enough of those big words correct to appease the teacher who moves on, leaving the little girl stewing in the stale adrenaline of stage fright. What did she comprehend from this story? Nothing. She “read” her paragraph out of context because she couldn’t afford to follow her predecessors as they sounded out the words to the paragraphs before hers. She missed all the crucial linkages in her own paragraph, and besides, she was so embarrassed about being in the spotlight that she wouldn’t have captured the meaning of the words anyway. The rest of the story following her performance is overshadowed by the thudding of her heart as it slowly regains equilibrium.
Sherry raced through passages that she read to me. Then she’d look up in confusion afterwards, unsure of what it was she’d just said. In her haste she had no concept of the pacing, the road signs of punctuation that help us decipher meaning. We worked on sentence structure, punctuation, and reading slowly in a conversational voice. I typed up the rules we talked about, along with examples, and presented her with these laminated pages for quick reference. Sherry never missed a session and our hour long lessons often stretched beyond two hours because she was so tenacious, so focused on getting it right.
But alas, Sherry’s life kept getting in the way of her studies. Each week, she’d arrive unprepared, homework untouched. She worked like a demon while we were together, but during the week her job, her father, her mother, or her relationship derailed her best intentions. Our progress was geologically slow for about a year and a half. Meanwhile her partner, Josie, was getting B’s in her coursework at BSU. Sherry was impatient and determined to enroll in the next semester.
I advised that she simply had to get a handle on her life. “Sherry, if you can’t even find two hours a week to practice for our sessions, how in the world will you manage to find three hours for every credit hour you sign up for? Do you realize that just to get through that entry level English class, you will be expected to spend nine hours a week in addition to the three hours you’ll be spending in class?”
She hung her head. “I’ll do better this week. Please believe me. I know I can do this.”
“I know you can do the work, Sherry. What I don’t know, is if you can manage your time. That’s what’s holding you back. That really has been holding you back since you began first grade. You are bright, capable, and work very hard. But academics require practice, time, and discipline.”
“I know what you’re saying. I’ll make it happen this week. I know I will,” she vowed.
But the next week she trudged up to our table and slumped onto the bench. Again, her father had derailed her study plans. He was fixing her jeep and needed her help. She needed the jeep to get to work and to come to our sessions. How could she refuse to help her dad when he was helping her?
I sighed. There was no arguing the point. “We’ll just have to practice here and now—again,” I said, disappointed. “But Sherry, once you start school, I am not going to donate my time just to insure that you have two hours of study time per week.”
She’d already enrolled at BSU, against my advice. I knew she wasn’t ready for college level work. And she and Josie were having problems. I could see another failure on her horizon and it made me sad. But on our last session before classes began that fall, I wished her luck. “You won’t have time for these sessions with me, even though we both enjoy this time together. You’ll have to put ever spare moment you can scrape together into studying.”
She agreed. We hugged long and hard. Her eyes were moist. “If you’re stumped, if you’ve got a writing project, I’ll be happy to meet with you to fine tune it before you turn it in. But you have to have it written before I’ll agree to meet with you,” I warned. She nodded and thanked me.
I didn’t hear from Sherry for several months, though I often thought of her. Then one morning, my heart hit the floor. Her name was on the obituary page. She was 27 years old and dead. I knew before Josie verified it. She’d taken more careful aim this time.