THE WOMAN WHO WAS AFRAID TO BREATHEShe slipped into my GED / Adult Basic Education classroom carefully, sideways through the doorway and then she slipped down the wall of file cabinets to the first empty chair she could find. She seemed to be terrified, apologetic, embarrassed to be using part of the air we were all breathing.After a few minutes of class, she worked up the courage to slip over to me and ask if I thought I was a good reading teacher or not. If I was not able to help her learn to read her daughter’s first grade books, her husband would divorce her. Their daugher would have to go with him, she added, if she was too stupid to learn. So, if I couldn’t teach her to read, and do it fast, she might as well go home and pack her bags because, as he told her, she’d never be worth feeding and clothing, and she’d understand she was too stupid to raise a child. So, could I understand that she had a problem that had to be solved right away, and could I give her a time by which she would be reading 1st grade level or better?I could see her problem, alright, and her worst problem wasn’t the reading.
If she coudn’t read at first grade level in about a week and a half of 2-hours a day Monday – Friday school, I promised her I’d get her better help- I can help some dyslexics, but it entails heavy use of a computer that can read and put up words of whatever the student wants to read.Sure enough, by the end of the first week, she could read. I didn’t get to teach her, though, her table-mates did that. She had three peer teachers sitting right with her who gave her undivided attention, teaching themselves and each other as they worked with this young mom.In the middle of the second week, she came to class in tears, sniffling till one of her table-mates found her a paper towel to use to blow her nose in. So we all sat quietly and waited until she gained her composure, her table-mates grouping protectively around her.“He told me <sniff> that I’m changing too much, and he doesn’t like how I’m getting, and if I don’t quit school and go back to being a good wife and mother, he’ll divorce me. And he’ll take my daughter away, too.” <sniff, sniff>“Here we go again”, I thought out loud, "that’s on page 3 of the SPOUSE ABUSERS’ MANUAL, right after ‘Get rid of your victim’s friends and family’ and right before ‘Make absolutely sure your victim knows how stupid you want them to think they are.’We always devoted class time to reading the newspaper, discussing the news, or, as in this situation, discussing some concern of a student that’s blocking their learning or their life from advancing, when the student wanted to talk it through.Deciding to stay in school no matter what the cost, with the full support of everybody in class, she went home, and was back in class the next day. Asked how it went last night she shrugged and gave us a rare half-smile, “He ain’t gone yet”, she said. From that day forward,she changed.By the start of the third week, she walked in the door the normal way, and went to her seat without any trace of fear or undue humility. She had won the war both at home, and within herself.The next few weeks saw her jump into high school level work, and become more and more of a person. Her name was Jane, and we began to think of her as Jane, and not as the Woman Who Was Afraid To Breathe.On the next to last day of class, I always had anybody who was interested accompany the metal shop teacher to his hands-on lab. (Boeing was still alive and paying machinists very well then in our area.) Jane came back excited and told us that although her hands were allergic to machining oil, she was going to enter college and take drafting.And the last day of class saw Jane come bounding in the door, laughing, with sparkling eyes!We wanted her to speak first so she stood up and said, “Well, I got home last night and told my husband that I was going to study drafting, and he told me that was a mans’ job and I couldn’t do it. So you know what I told him? <great belly-laughs from Jane here> I told him he never told me driving the tractor was a mans’ job and that I couldn’t do it, and I drive the tractor all the time. So I said that right to him, and I said, ’I’m going to have a life, with you or without you, and I’m going to keep my daughter. So you just decide if you want to stay here with me or not, because I’m somebody and I know it!”She was quiet a few seconds, then said, “And you know what else?”“He ain’t gone yet!”
Saturday, 17 May, 2008
This is a true story, and it’s worth reading to the end.
I hope you cry through your laughter, and then stand in praise of this woman and those who, liker her, changed her own life, one word at a time.
BTW, I didn’t teach her to read: Her table-mates did. She became “theirs”, and they loved her dearly. As they taught her, of course, their skills improved enormously. But she taught them, taught us all, who we can be if we want to.
I have a feeling that even if she hadn’t learned to read, the end would have been the same, had she continued driving her old farm pickup to class.