Monday, 20 February 2012

The Power of Story

A few years ago when I was living in upstate New York I joined Literacy Volunteers of America and began teaching basic reading, writing and arithmetic to a lady in her middle fifties whom I’ll call Jean - not her real name. She was a brilliant pupil, endlessly fascinated by learning. “Gee Katherine, the things you tell me are so inneresting," she’d exclaim, after I’d explained something like the concept of the plural - or the idea that you could make a drawing of the neighbourhood into a flat plan called a map.

In my diary I wrote:

Jean gave me a huge hug as soon as we met. She never went to school beyond kindergarten. She's pale, her grey hair strained back in a ponytail. Several of her lower teeth are missing so she lisps a little as she speaks. Her nails are bitten down and she smells of cigarette smoke - even her work smells of this. She wears a dainty set of earrings though, and always looks neat. Indeed her work is neat - she writes in pencil and hastily rubs out and corrects any letter she judges to be too far above the line.

I ask, “How come you never went to school, Jean?” She answers in her rather gruff voice, “Well, when I wuz seven I got polio ‘n they put me in a Home. I would’n’ want ta tell you ‘bout that, Katherine. They beat up on us, hit us over the head - we didn’ learn nuthin.”

She cleans somewhere. Lives with her friend Joe since his sister died. She obviously adores him. He’s older than her, a veteran in his seventies, who told her she needed to learn to do things by herself (because he’s dying of lung cancer). He fell down a while ago, slid across a floor, hit his head against a door.

“He got a big goose bump,” recalls Jean, “’n I said to him, ‘Well I can do that for you, I can hit you over the head with a frying pan.' He says, ‘Thanks Jeanie.’ 'N he asked the landlord, he says for him to put soft doors in. He always makes a joke of it. He says, ‘Well I don’t want to go round thinkin’ ‘bout dyin’ (she pulls her chin down) ‘with a face like a cow that hasn’t been milked.’”

Jean’s reading level was very basic, around that of a child of six. She could spell out words slowly, but might miss the point of a sentence because by the time she got to the end of it she’d forgotten how it began. Her understanding of anything she read was therefore poor, and I began buying her simple early reader books with pictures, especially if they had anything to do with American history, which she was eager to learn about. And pretty soon I also realised she loved dogs. The story of Balto, the sled dog who helped bring vital medical supplies to Nome, Alaska, was a big hit with her, therefore - and probably her favourite until I found another dog story: this time about Buddy, the first American ‘Seeing Eye’ dog.

Buddy, the First Seeing Eye Dog by Eva Moore and Don Bolognese

To see Jean take this little book to her heart was to see the power of story turned up high. C.S. Lewis once provocatively argued (in 'An Experiment in Criticism') that since all criticism is subjective, the only criterion for telling if a book was 'good' should be the way in which it is read. If even a single person would read and re-read a book, 'and notice and complain' if anything was changed, then we should assume that book has a richness of quality for them even if we can't ourselves detect it, and should hesitate to dismiss it.

On that level this short book was a masterpiece. For me it was a nice little story about a man and his dog. For Jean it was something deeply, deeply moving. She read it so often she could quote whole sentences by heart. The best bit was in the middle. Buddy’s blind owner is travelling to Europe on an ocean liner, and he’s lying in his cabin unaware of the fact that he’s dropped his wallet somewhere on the deck, when his dog Buddy comes up and nudges him, the wallet in his mouth. The owner rubs the dog’s head and praises him. “Buddy,” he says, “You’re worth more to me than all the money in the world.”

Jean would read this aloud and her eyes would brim with tears. Her voice would shake. “You’re worth more to me than any money in the world, Buddy.” Jean knew the value of money. She didn’t have much of it. But she knew love was worth so much more.

Took Jean to lunch the other day. We each had a gyro at the Ice Cream Works on Market Street - she’d never had one before but thought it delicious. (Typical Jean to be bold and try something new!) I asked how Joe was; he won’t have treatment for his cancer because he ‘doesn’t want to be a guinea pig’, and looks terribly thin and keeps falling. What a charmer he is, though so ill. He told me he used to work for the Mafia - he means this - said one of the guys who lived on the hill offered him several thousand dollars to kill ‘his old man’ but Joe refused… And now he’s a frail old man with a puckish sense of humour. He and Jean score off each other all the time. She thinks the world of him. At the moment she’s paying off $40 on a pewter clock shaped like a merry-go-round horse, which she’ll give to Joe as a late birthday present once she’s paid it all (at $5 a week). My hope is that he lives to receive it. “He’s worth it,” she says.

Well, Joe died, and luckily the town found somewhere for Jean to live, and I left America for England. It was a wrench to say goodbye. Here’s one of her letters to me, written in her careful curling pencil script which I know will have taken her ages to write:

Dear Katherine,
I am writing you this letter to you to say hi. How are you and your family are doing. I am doing good. I miss you and your family. Merry Christmas happy new years. ...I wish I can see you. I have been learning on spelling words and math and reading and writing. I have been working on crafts. I have been learning a lots of different things. I learn on my budget all my friends said to me how I come along way. They are glad I came along way. They told me to keep up and don’t give up. I told them I wont give up I will keep on going. I am going to keep on doing good for myself. I am going to make myself happy. …What happens to your first dog you had she was a sweet dog. I did like her so much. She was a sweet dog. I am learning on the computer I learn a lot on it.
… I got new curtains in my front room. They are blue goes with my furniture. I got to go for now.
Love Jean

Lovely, indomitable Jean, I miss you too.


  1. What a lovely post ! I really enjoyed reading about Jean - brought a tear to my eye too :0)

  2. Beautiful account of this time in your life. What a positive and life altering difference you made Jeans life, thank you for putting it down in such a touching manner, really enjoyed remembering this!

  3. Truly beautiful post. I never met Jean, but wherever she is, I hope she'd doing well. It reminded me of my own time as a volunteer for adult literacy (in the UK). I met people there who had very little education of any kind, for all sorts of reasons, but who were inspiring in their love of learning and, yes, their willingness to try something new, to dare, to hope.

  4. Hi Shiret, you'll remember her I'm sure. And while I don't know how much difference I honestly made to her reading abilities, at least I found her these stories she could truly connect with. And she was and is an inspiring lady.

    Sue, thanks - lovely that you too have done this kind of thing. Funnily enough this Saturday's Guardian magazine had an article from someone who learned to read as an adult.

    And SnippetyGiblets, thanks too!

  5. That was a beautiful post, Kath. It reminds me about something I feel very passionately about reading - its power to move and to help and to change - and the fact that one story may have an ineffable magic to someone but fails to work for someone else. Its why I think its so important that we be truthful about what we read, and what we love reading.

  6. Beautiful and touching post, Katherine.
    The power of story, indeed!