Profiles in Courage

I stole John Kennedy’s book title. Now to paraphrase Rod Stewart, “Those eight senators got nothin’ on you.”

I am certain that I learned more during last night’s talk to the Read to Succeed classes in Hartford than the students learned from me. I thank my friend Nancy Walts for inviting me. I’ll be back again, that’s for sure!

The ten or so adults in the class are all people who reached adulthood without being able to read. Their stories of how they “faked it,” or made excuses to avoid reading, or developed coping skills, including acting out in school, floored me. Two women said they were able to pass the written exam for their driver’s licenses without being able to read. The school that helped them cheat is now closed, thank goodness. Another woman managed at an insurance company for years by memorizing account numbers and the like. Some who had come from foreign countries left school early to go to work and never had the chance to go to school.

I couldn’t help thinking that if these folks had harnessed that sort of creativity for other endeavors, what terrific contributions they could make to the world of the arts. Now that they are learning to read, maybe they will direct their brilliance elsewhere.

Read to Succeed is, like everything else, struggling for funding and will be hosting a fund raising dinner next week. Three students have composed a speech explaining how they’ve benefited and what they have learned. They shared it with their teachers, the other students and me last night. I was greatly moved at their stories and their eloquence. It will be the best marketing tool for the program. I was also intrigued by the way the program uses students who are ready to graduate to build the confidence of newer participants. They learn from each other as well as from their teachers and the volunteer tutors.

One of the students who contributed to the speech also read her poetry aloud. The poems were moving, powerful, and full of the kind of energy one sees and hears at poetry slams conducted by far more experienced “professionals.” It is sad that there are so few magazines and journals that publish verse because her words are more than worth sharing with a wider audience.

As much as I enjoyed talking to the students and hearing their stories, part of me was infuriated, too, that these people, who range in age from 18 to 63, could have graduated from high school (and some from community college) without basic literacy skills. The public schools in this country should be ashamed of themselves that students are allowed to graduate with such deficiencies. Perhaps the diagnostic tools were lacking when the older ones attended school – I think back with horror on what we called “the dumb class.” These days there is absolutely no excuse for anyone to leave high school without the basic survival skill of being able to read.

We began the evening with a presentation from me – mostly a tribute to my beautiful, talented mother. Here is the basic outline of what I said. I go “off script” as the occasion arises and did last evening, so it’s not exactly verbatim.

Hi, I’m Liz Petry, and I’m a writer. [I passed around Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters.] I didn’t start out to become one, but it was in the genes. The biggest influence on me was my mother. She started writing when she was in high school. Years later she wrote a novel called The Street that has been in print for more than 60 years. It’s about a woman struggling to raise a child by herself in Harlem. When a new edition of the book came out in 1992, people asked Mother was she pleased. She said yes and no. Yes, because the book was still in print. No, because that all those years later she could write the same story over again – all she would have to do is add guns and crack, which was destroying a great many lives at the time.

Over the years people always asked Mother why she decided to become a writer. Here’s how the two of us explained it. [From At Home Inside, p. 72-73]

The drive to create began early. She said she felt she had always had “the idea of being a writer – the urge – the desire to string words together, create characters.” But the notion that she could be a successful professional writer began in high school. Her English class had read A Tale of Two Cities, and for their examination, the teacher instructed them to create their own two-page scene using characters from the novel. Mother said she wrote a scene between Jerry Cruncher and his wife. One of Dickens’s less savory characters, Cruncher supplemented his income by “resurrecting” bodies from cemeteries and selling the corpses. Mother didn’t remember the details, but she assumed she would receive a low grade because the teacher didn’t like her and she didn’t like the teacher. The test was on a Friday. The following Monday the teacher read her paper aloud to the class. Mother decided that the teacher was going to point to the story as an example of what not to do, of how not to write a scene. So she was shocked when the teacher concluded, “I never make predictions, but I honestly believe that you could be a writer if you wanted to.”

Those words of encouragement helped to motivate her, but Mother recognized that the desire to create had to come from inside. “What impelled me to start to write – I honestly don’t know – it seemed to come to me easily – the business of expressing what I had to say on a piece of paper – I chose the material – the content – on the basis of what I had seen, experienced, heard – or perhaps I should say the material chose me.” [Journal November 24, 1985] She described what Tillie Olsen called the “chancy luck” of having “incredible uncles, world travellers, (South Africa, Canada, Japan) story tellers, jugglers, they brought drama and life and fun into our lives.”  She was young when she learned that “the sound of a story is the dominant sound of our lives.” [Reynolds Price, A Palpable God] Because of visits from these fascinating uncles, Mother acquired the habit of listening and observing.

[I passed around a copy of the book after I finished.]

All writers are actually telling stories. These days they use computers. My mom wrote in longhand on scraps of paper, then typed a final draft. Before that people carved in stone or wrote on birch bark. And before that they talked instead of writing, but they were still telling stories.             They sat around a fire if it was cold, out under the stars when it was warm. You do it yourselves. You call a friend, or you come home from work and say, “You wouldn’t believe what happened today!” Then you tell the story.

One of the reasons I have always loved to read is that my parents read to me, pretty much every day. I remember drifting off to sleep to the sound of Mother’s voice or Daddy’s voice. When I began to read, they still read to me. If I was reading on a first-grade level, they would read books from a fourth-grade level and so on.

So I’m going to read to you tonight. The first is a description of my mom’s first day of school. Then I’m going to read a wonderful short story that she wrote based on the same incident.

And then it will be your turn – to ask questions, talk about the story, maybe to read some of your own writing if you like.

By way of introduction my grandparents grew up not very far from here. My grandmother lived on Winter Street, which is just off Albany Avenue in the North End. My grandfather lived for a time on Wethersfield Avenue and then his parents moved to Village Street, which is just south of here. After they got married, they moved to the little town of Old Saybrook. That was in 1902. That’s where my mother was born and grew up and that’s where I grew up. When my grandparents settled there, one other black family lived in town. (Now I think there might be three or four.)

My mother wrote an account of her life for “Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series.” It’s in Volume six if you want to read the whole thing. She included a description of her first day of school. She started on the same day as her older sister even though my mom was two years younger. She insisted on going. No one checked her age; they just let her in. Here’s what my mom wrote:

My mother took us to school on that first day. We wore our hair in pigtails, and there were new bows tied on the pigtails, and we had new dresses and new shoes.

On our way home from school ten- and twelve-year old boys threw stones at us and called us names, using the kind of profanity that their parents used when angry. This was the vocabulary of the barnyard and the stables and the docks and the wharves, for these young attackers were the offspring of farmers and fishermen. We ran and ran and ran. They followed us, pausing now and then to arm themselves with more small stones, stones that they picked up from the side of the road.

When we arrived home disheveled, crying we said we were never going to school again. But my mother and father said yes, we were. And that we would be fine, no one would ever attack us again.

And so – the next morning my mother walked to school with us. Nothing happened. She assured us that we could come home along safely. We didn’t quite believe her.

Sure enough as soon as we were out of sight of the school the same boys started to stone us. Two of our uncles appeared, quite suddenly, and started knocking the attackers down – some of them they held and knocked their heads together, as they threatened them with sudden and violent death. After that, we walked home from school without incident.

Many years later, Mother wrote a short story about the incident called “Doby’s Gone.” [After I finished I passed around a copy of Miss Muriel and Other Stories in which the story appears.]

The story shows how one small girl can overcome some frightening obstacles and begin to grow up. My experience last night showed me that adults can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and grow exponentially. I can’t wait to go back.

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