Friday, September 18, 2009


Being a big Kate Winslet fan, I saw The Reader last winter the weekend it was released. I didn't know the story, and the friend I went with said the book is basically a screen play for the movie - that doesn't happen often.

This was one of those movies that I thought about for days after seeing it. The characters are brilliantly complex and layered. And the story is about so much - the Holocaust, the rebuilding of German life after WW2, love, killing, redemption and - here's a twist - illiteracy. Each person I've discussed the movie with has had widely differing viewpoints about why the characters made the choices they did. Holocaust stories, both fiction and nonfiction are certainly plentiful, but this one explores that subject from a very different perspective. It's fascinating to me.

Last fall during the presidential campaign I was really touched by President Obama asking people to get involved in their neighborhoods and help where there are needs. Paging through my community education catalog one night I noticed a request for literacy tutors in the adult basic education section. And I had an a-ha moment. Perhaps this is the right volunteer fit for me. So I called the coordinator and started the training process. It's federally mandated that volunteer tutors in these programs complete 12 hours of training - thank goodness. In May I attended training at the Minnesota Literacy Council, which I have to say was the most well done, professional training I've ever attended. Working in the nonprofit sector for over 10 years and volunteering with several different organizations, I've seen the good and not so good. MLC and the staff are fabulous. I looked forward to the 3 hour trainings even after a day at work. I think because the content is so different from my development work. I "teach" in both roles, but the content and delivery are apples and oranges.

Now on Wednesday evenings from 6-7:30 I assist in a class in South St. Paul. Each learner is working on individualized goals and most in this class are working toward completing the General Educational Development (GED) certificate - also known as the high school equivalency certificate. I won't get into this here, but there are a lot of misconceptions about what the GED is all about. For learners who have issues with literacy and have been out of the pattern of studying and taking standardized tests, preparing for and testing the GED can seem like an impossible task. But that's where the human spirit takes over. The majority of learners at this level are motivated and dedicated in ways I hadn't considered. They want to read to their kids. They want a wider variety of job opportunities. They want to experience more of our world. And that's where the fictional story of The Reader intersects with real life. Lacking age-appropriate literacy skills produces unimaginable (at least for me) shame. People attend ABE classes in secret because they don't want their families and friends to know they stuggle with reading, writing and math. They are overcoming the belief that they will always fail at reading or working math problems that an average 4th grader can do with ease.

The past two weeks I've worked with, "Greg," who has passed the reading, writing, social studies and science components of the GED. Greg has one section remaining - math - and he's working through a textbook to prepare. We've been working with decimals. And since I don't think about decimals much anymore, I've had to study the work book quite a bit as well. He's working hard at class, and making time for learning in his full life. We briefly talked about our jobs this week and I learned Greg has worked as a custodian at St. Thomas for over 20 years. He likes it, and loves being around the students. He told me a few stories about work, and this one stands out. He knows Father Dease (UST's president) from talking with him from time to time on campus. One night Greg was cleaning up after a donor event. Guests were leaving and Father Dease was seeing them out. Father came back to room and starting talking with Greg as he loaded chairs. They were in the middle of a conversation when a guest stepped right in between them, interupted and started talking to Father Dease. Father told the man he would talk to him in just a minute, when he finished his conversation with Greg. He turned back to Greg and asked "where were we?"

Greg smiled and said to me, "You know, that says a lot. I'm nobody - I'm just a custodian - and he told that guy with the tie on to wait a minute and we continued our conversation." Then Greg said, "Well that's enough chit-chat for now, I've got to get back to these decimals."

I'd love to hear what you think about The Reader. If you read or see it, let me know :)

By the way, I think Kate Winslet deserves all the awards she received last year. I already consider her the legendary actress of my generation. She's come a long way since Titanic.


  1. Aarrrggghhh! I wrote a big ol' comment and edited it to perfection, and then the stupid computer lost it. Anyway, I have not seen or read The Reader, but I love that you are working (volunteering) in the literacy field! Might be something I'd like to do after I retire.

  2. I used to volunteer to tutor a child who was struggling to learn to read. It's rewarding for both participants, I think. I hope it continues to be the right fit for you. I'm a classmate from Yesterday + Today.