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831 [Tales From the Area Code] ISSUE 9/25/2003

Brave New World: Learning to read as an adult is a scary proposition.
By Jessica Lyons


About a year ago, the fear had reached Joe's eyebrows. "It went all the way to the top," Joe says, pointing to his brow. "And I worried, how am I going to pay all these doggone bills?"

Joe's 49, and he was born and raised in Monterey County. At the end of his senior year of high school, he couldn't even read at a third-grade level. He lived that way for the next 30 years, part of the 25 percent of county residents who are, for all intents and purposes, functionally illiterate.

Unlike most of them, however, Joe is a native English speaker who graduated from a local high school. "I just barely graduated, but I did it. I played a little football. Really, I just kept my mouth closed. Again, I made it right through."

Joe's bright and a hard worker. He earned enough money to put his brothers though college. Somehow, he says, "I just fell through the cracks."

Joe kept on like this for almost half a century.

"It was a little bit scary," he says. "I didn't tell a lot of people. Of course my wife knew. I would just mostly keep my mouth closed. I didn't ask a lot of questions. I'd listen a lot."

Joe says his employer doesn't know that he's a beginning reader and he's worried he would lose his job if his boss knew the truth. He asked that his real name not be used in this article.

Last October, Joe's wife prompted him to check out the county's Adult Literacy program. He wanted to be able to help her pay the bills. He had a hard time reading them, and he didn't know how to write a check. Plus, Joe says, he wanted to make himself smarter. "So my wife says, Joe, go to the library and talk to somebody."

So he did.

He met Rita Zanzinger, who coordinates the Adult Literacy Program.

"Rita told me, 'I've got this program,'" Joe remembers. "'It's a terrific program. I'll see what I can do.'"

Zanzinger runs the program out of a small office in the back of the Seaside Library. It's officially called the Monterey County Free Libraries Adult Literacy Program, and it offers confidential, one-on-one literacy tutoring to English-speaking adults. Most adult learners aren't native English speakers--the majority are Latino and want to improve their English grammar, reading and writing skills--but they have to speak sufficient English to be able to communicate with a tutor who may only speak English.

Currently about 80 adults between the ages of 20 and 50 are enrolled in the literacy program. Zanzinger says she never needs to advertise to attract new clients. Right now there's a waiting list. "So what I'm always looking for are tutors," she says.

Tutors need to volunteer their time, about two hours a week, for a six-month period. They don't need to be teachers, or have any previous tutoring experience.

"The average educational level of the client is between first and third grade," Zanzinger says. "Our tutors minimally have 12 years of schooling. So it's just a matter of confidence. We have instruction manuals. I promise you can do this. I frequently have tutors tell me, 'I don't know who's learning more, my student or me.'"

The tutoring sessions are "student-centered," meaning the learner determines the course of study. They chose long-term and short-term goals that range from improving English writing skills to earning a GED, becoming a US citizen, or learning to read the PG&E bill.

One of Joe's goals was to learn to write a check.

"We saw the date was one of the first things we needed to learn, and we worked on spelling the months," says Joan Beller.

Beller, a retired teacher, is Joe's tutor. She says volunteering at the adult literacy program is the most satisfying work she has ever done.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Joe," she says. "It takes a lot of courage to say this is something I can't do and want to be able to do."

Recently, Beller brought Joe a sixth-grade-level book. "He looked at the first page, and he said, 'I can do this.'"

Joe says that now he asks questions at work. He talks to clients. He'll ask them for their names, and he'll write them. He says he's a better speaker, and he's more comfortable with everyday conversations.

He comes to the library before his tutoring session begins and he checks out books and magazines. "I like learning about the history of the area and how my father did it when he came here," Joe says. "My poor father didn't read either. I know he's looking down on me and thinking what a hell of a job I've done.

"Now my goal is just to keep improving my reading and keep moving forward. When I go to the store now and I do my shopping, I can look at the labels and know what I'm getting.

"I've made a few mistakes in the past. I'm much more confident now. The fear is gone."

© 2003 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
Republished with permission. Coast Weekly, the Best of Monterey Bay Visitor's Guide and the Monterey Jazz Festival Program are published by Milestone Communications Inc. Coast Weekly reaches more local adults than any other newspaper or radio station. The Coast Weekly Community Fund, since 2000, has raised over $150,000 for local non-profits, supporting change through charity.

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2003 Monterey County Adult Literacy Program. Monterey County Free Libraries