A group of learner participants in Literacy Mid-South programs reflect on personal struggles, life-long learning, and life itself
The roots of their struggles are wide-ranging, reflective of our basic and shared humanity. It could be that they are simply new to the United States, still dealing with what many outside of the western world describe as one of the most difficult of languages – English – to learn and understand. Or, their struggles with the English language may be a result of challenges we can all relate to: not having access to an adequate education, suffering from cognitive challenges, or dealing with that thing called life. They may have grown up in broken homes, in poverty, in incarceration, or suffered physical or emotional abuse.
Since their founding in 1974, Literacy Mid-South (LMS) has aimed to remedy these challenges in our population. The LMS mission is to “help learners of all backgrounds and ages – from young children to adults – achieve the critical literacy skills they need to navigate the world.”
“Literacy is the single most important foundational skill that can unlock a person’s potential for success in life,” says the LMS website. “Performing well in school, interacting with others, solving problems, seeking employment, and supporting a family – literacy makes all of it possible.”
As mentioned in the LMS site, the 1970 census revealed that there were 30,000 people over age 25 in Memphis who could not read at all, with more than 80,000 adults who had some degree of reading difficulty. Today, it is estimated that 5% of adults are “non-literate,” and that 20-25% of all adults can only read at the lowest level.
In their work, LMS remedies the challenges of their learners from a variety of angles, and from multiple sources.
“Multiple generations of volunteer tutors have anchored Literacy Mid-South’s story,” reads the LMS site. “Prominent community leaders have played key roles, but so has a large cast of supporters serving quietly in the background. Setting the stage were a foreign missionary and the local preacher who championed his teaching method. A music superstar also pitched in. Thousands of people and numerous partners have worked with energy and dedication through the years to grow the organization that is still the literacy leader of the Mid-South.”
Multiple generations, thousands of people, and thousands of stories. In late 2021, StoryBoard Memphis and Literacy Mid-South collaborated on a series of personal narratives to bring some of these individuals’ stories to light. Ultimately, the LMS team deserves all the credit for the work – we at StoryBoard simply helped provide the spark – as their teams joined together in comfort and grace, and vulnerability and empathy to record and share the stories of a few willing participants in the program in 2021 and 2022.
I sat down with some of the participants near the LMS offices at Playhouse on the Square, in the summer of 2022, and they were gracious enough to allow me to record some of their recollections on camera. I walked away with the sense of the basic humanity we all share, and our collective struggles to survive. I was inspired by their courage. Humbled, I am grateful to them for the bravery and vulnerability they shared that afternoon.
Thanks to Literacy Mid-South, here are just a few of their stories.
~Mark Fleischer, StoryBoard Memphis
English as a Foreign Language
Literacy Mid-South is the convener of two English classes, one that is held at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee and the other in their office space. Both classes have the same instructor, Russell Joy, a retired teacher and principal who’s been inspiring and empowering adult English language learners for over 4 years. The following excerpts are from the testimonials his learners gave about why they came to the United States and want to learn English.
Dinora Perez. I came to the United States for a new opportunity in my life with my family. I like this country, it is nice.
Edgar Jiminez. It was not easy for me to leave my family but we did not have an opportunity in my country for a better life. It is important for me to speak English because I am living in a country where the language is not mine but I need to communicate every day with my friends and in my job.
Gabriel Castiblanco. The U.S.A. is a beautiful country and I think the people, industry, landscape, and the education are over average in comparison with the rest of the world. If we combined our culture and tradition with the people around us, then life will be more wonderful. I want to teach Spanish language in this moment because if you can speak English and Spanish you can talk with 70% of the people around the world.
Janeth Jimenez. I am in English school to be able to get better work and have better opportunities and feel better with myself. I still follow my traditions because I want my daughter to know them so they see where I come from and value what they have and respect others.
Jose “Cheo” Araque. I believe and want my family to have a better life and opportunities. Here I have the opportunity to enjoy my old age. I am learning English because I want to be able to understand and communicate with people.
Massy Bamba. Learning English is very important for my work as a nurse. I moved to Memphis because my husband and my children are here. My life would be nothing without my tradition and my culture.
Nadine Saunders. I moved to Tennessee because I got a job and then I fell in love with Memphis. When you are kind, people love you more, so it is important to teach your children to be kind. I love my culture because I love to cook my Jamaican dishes.
Viviana Valdivia. Both my husband and I are doctors. He is a Neurologist and I am a general doctor. In my case, it is very important for me to learn English because I want to improve my conversation with other people and understand them better. I also want to work in the hospital in Memphis someday. It is my dream.
Stories of Hope, Home, Gratitude
My name is Jacqueline Gathings Davis. I been trying to get my GED ever since I was 16 years old and I almost passed twice. But something always happens. I heard about Literacy Mid-South on TV. It said to call the library to get the information so I called. LMS had me come in and take a test so they could find out what type of help I need in reading and math. Stacy (Early) gave me the test. After taking the test they found a tutor for me. I also met interesting people. I had three ladies tutor me and then I met Mr. Michael, and he is a wonderful tutor. He is patient and kind. My reading score went up. I learned to sound out words I never seen before.
The reason I’m here is because my father didn’t send me to school. He joined the American Muslims under Elijah Muhammud. They said “Get an education at all costs. Send the girls to a girls-only school.” This is about prejudice and hatred as I experienced with my father. My father was decent. He didn’t want me to go to the white school run by the government. My father twisted it. He had issues. Later on, I found out why he hated white people. When he was a teenager white men raped him. My aunt told me out of viciousness, but the truth set me free. It gave me understanding. It set me free.
My grandparents were Samuel Gathings and Beatrice Gathins. They had five sons and nine daughters. My grandfather was also a pastor. I was raised up in Byhalia on a 150-acre farm with 100 head of cows, horses, hogs, and chickens. It was really more like a ranch than a farm. We had apple and peach trees. He had his own dairy at one time. He rented some of that land and sold cow’s milk and butter. It was beautiful.
Early in the morning before they milked the cows, my Grandmother made biscuits, chicken and gravy, bacon, and had fresh fruit from the garden. Now that I look back, she must have gotten up very early. In the evening, my grandfather would call the cows and they would come running. My cousin Larry and I had to find the stray ones. We would feed the dog biscuits so he would help us bring them back. My aunt wrote the book Blessings and Curses in the Midst of the Land which tells more of our family’s story.
I want to thank my church family and the late Pastor David West at Faith Baptist Memphis for supporting me and my family.
Growing up was something serious. Dad left 7 kids and one on the way. We lived on a farm and mom raised cotton. Only 2 kids finished high school. I only went to the fourth grade and that was in 1963. In 1964, I dropped out. The next year I had my daughter. I had learned how to read pretty good but I didn’t get the math that good. We had books we studied out of but I couldn’t do all of that. I guess I had too much pride to get someone to help me. I could have asked my mom because she went to the tenth grade. She was a pretty educated lady.
Now everything I’m doing, the reading, the algebra, is all new to me. Even when my daughter was in fourth or fifth grade, I couldn’t help her. I had to send her to someone else.
Now, I’m 71 and it can be hard to learn. I was around 60 when I started working to get my GED, and it has taken a while, but I’ve stuck with it. People ask why I go to school. It’s personal, just to know that I got it, to be proud of myself. It’s a struggle doing it while I’m working. But I don’t want to stop. It feels good to keep going and not to sit still.
I have 4 brothers and 3 sisters. There are 8 of us, there were 10. One was a crib death, and one got caught on fire, then got pneumonia and passed away. In 1963, I moved off the farm to a house near my friend. We struggled for food with so many kids. Only 2 boys graduated from high school. I have a lot of wisdom even though no traditional education past fourth grade. I have wisdom, respect, and manners, and I honor others. I am Baptist, going to church for 40 years. I do Bible study, Sunday school, and worship and enjoy them all. Whatever they were teaching I wasn’t getting it. I just wasn’t receiving it. Once I started to receive it, then I got into it. I learned to read with the Bible.
I had my first kid at 14. I was hired for $10 a week babysitting. It was for a white family. I listened and learned how to speak and put words together because I didn’t get that in school. I was trying to do things right, I got food stamps even when I was working. They found out so I had to go to court. The judge asked if I could read, I said yes, I read. I read the newspaper. I had to pay all that back. Made payments with the little money I made. After a while it got waived, they saw I was trying.
I was married at 20. My husband was abusive – physically and mentally. Just mean. In 1971, you had to be 21 to get married. I got my dad’s wife to sign for me. My mother wouldn’t do it. I didn’t have a mentor to talk to me about men and marriage.
I helped my daughter raise her 3 kids. Out of the 3 kids, they haven’t kept a job for more than a year. I try to get them to listen to authority. I stay at a job as long as I can – till they make me go.
For five years, 2004-2009 I worked and took care of a baby. I traveled with the family. Then it suddenly stopped. They let me go. It was very painful. He was like my own child and it just seemed like they fell off of the face of the Earth. I didn’t know where they were. There was no forwarding address.
I cook for troubled kids now. I’ve been there 21 years. I try to be a mentor to the kids. I want them to know they’re here now. I say, “You don’t have to stay, go on to better things, don’t make this place your home.”
I live with my sister. We’ve had our house for 25 years. Juanita. We’re bonded together. I’m close with two of my sisters, we go everywhere together.
When I was young, I didn’t think education was important. I had a lot of friends that graduated. They invite me to the reunions but I don’t go cuz I didn’t graduate. I had a lot of friends that didn’t make it to 40. Killed, drugs, different things. I’m still here and I thank God for that.
English is Difficult, But Interesting.
The first time when I came to the United States of America, I found the the reality that American English is different than British. One with a lot of unfamiliar words for me as a diaspora of people who want to learn English. I started learning British English at University then because of the American/Indonesian Friendship organization, we learned American English.
After more than 6 months of looking for an English language learner course, finally, with advice from the Central Library, I found one supervised by Literacy Mid-South. I went to the location of a Baptist church because it was close to home. In our class, we had a variety of backgrounds and countries like Venezuela, Iran, Petofrorica, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, France, Jamaica, Vietnam, South Korea, Yaman, Bangladesh, and of course Indonesia which the writer comes from. At the beginning of the class, there were many learners who joined the class regularly and some of them left the class because of their jobs and other activities. All individuals running the ELL class really should be highly appreciated, especially the honourable teachers who sacrifice by all means to teach with patience all learners who come from non-English speaking countries.
According to my experience in learning or studying English, there are too many problems and difficulties in how to speak American English like the native speakers. It is not only hard but there is the accents and colloquialisms and other problems. For me, the basic problem I have is my Indonesian native language is one of the simplest or easiest languages in the world. In general, Indonesian language does not have tenses in the acting verb, so for indication of past and future time it is just enough to add the word to tell the past and future time apart. In other words, the structure of the verb never changes, ever, so there are no irregular verb. It is also in the term of nouns that never change at all to indicate the plural, just repeat the noun twice and if necessary just put the number directly in a separate word.
So to learn English, I have to change my mindset to express my ideas in sentences with many difficulties as the acting verb must match with the time accordingly. Now I realize why my spoken English is always jumbled because I can’t separate the basics of my own native language when I want to express my ideas in English. That makes me stuck to talk or I can look like mute, dumb, and stutter or stammer. It is really hard or out of the question to apply some advice by tutor, mentor, and teacher to avoid the translation way from my own language to English. Instead of translation, the best method for learning English is the leaner must always use English as the basis of the expression to put in mind overall.
One day I rode a bus, the driver asked me to buckle up. I never heard this before, so I was confused. Suddenly a lady voluntarily explained to me and asked me to fasten my belt. Oh My God. It was the first time in my life that one language has been translated with the same language. Since then I understood that the American English has a special style and looks very different from British. Perhaps American English is a dynamical language, so I can say the American English is modern while the British is the antique and ancient English language.
Basically to learn English professionally is not easy as pie, since there are many difficulties that learners should know well. The tenses are very complicated. It is hard to memorize the vocabulary, and learn by heart some expressions and idioms. Perhaps with time, I can overcome these hardships like the slogan in the marathon “slow and steady wins the race.” But another problem comes with pronunciations since there is no base regulation, in general, to keep in my mind as a beginner. In this case, I must pay attention to a variety of words that many letters must be silent and sometimes two words are connected (linking) in order to speak fast. And last but not least intonation can’t be ignored at all. It is like rhythm in dancing.
Besides that trouble, there are a lot of words that sound and spell the same or similar (homonym, homophone) but have different meanings, and too many words that are different but have the same meaning (synonym) and also contractions which make the tone unclear to my ear.
The accent in spoken is the most troublesome for me. I have difficulty imitating the eloquence correctly, so many times I feel ashamed of myself. One day I talked to Google in English as I have done before, for setting a timer when I cooked the food. However suddenly and unexpectedly Google answered me in the Indonesian language. An ashamed feeling came in my mind that can’t be forgotten. It seemed that Google could tell I had a strong accent, and have used Indonesian before, so it answered me in that instead of English. In my English class, when I spoke or read some phrases, my teacher and all my colleagues called my accent Indonesian English.
Finally, it will be far away to me and only in my imagination that someday I am able to speak English properly as to be able use idioms like “Bite the bullet.”
When I was born, I had a speech problem and had to go to speech therapy. No one could understand me but my family. My speech gave me a spelling disability. I was scared to let anyone know I needed help with spelling. I didn’t start talking to other people until I was 8 or 9 because they didn’t understand me. I was a special ED student. There were people at the school who knew my dad, so they pushed me through and I slipped through the cracks.
My last test of my 12th grade year, they gave all the answers so everyone would make it out. After I finished, I started at FedEx as a package handler. During that time, I got married. Then I moved to New Jersey and was a courier with FedEx. I worked there for 10 years all together. I left there because I couldn’t get my retirement money until I was 65.
I am also an usher at church. I was raised there and my daddy was the minister there for 40 years. I am one of 16 (ten girls, six boys). We had a farm with 250 hogs, 80 cows, and three dump trucks. We cleaned up fire burnouts on residential and new homes, and other construction sites. My daddy also owned and ran a Texaco station. He had two mechanics on staff. His early money came from when he was in the navy and with that, sometime in the 60’s, he bought the the gas station, the dump trucks, and the farm which was on Getwell Rd. when it was a one lane dirt road with overhanging trees.
I started working for the city of Memphis in 1992 when I was 26 years old. I was married and had two sons and a daughter. I was working for Asplin Inc. cutting trees when I had interviews with the city and BFI. My dad told me to take the job for the city because “you’ll always have a job.” I had a class B license, which helped me get the job so I could drive the dump truck. I’ve worked the same position with the City of Memphis. I applied for promotions, but I am good at my job so they never promoted me. It’s been a very good job for 31 years. I could have retired after 25 years but have not because I would lose my health benefits.
A few years ago, I went to my sister and said I needed help reading. She called Literacy Mid-South for me and I did my assessment at their office. I wanted to improve my life, my job, and have a better relationship with people. About 30 days later, I got matched with my tutor, Lee. We started working on word games at the library. I also learned how to use my computer, how to spell, and pronounce words better. We wrote a speech together about my history of not reading well and I gave it at the Holiday Inn for a Literacy Mid-South fundraiser. My family and friends came to hear me speak. It was a very touching day for me. I decided to go back to get my EPA license at an HVAC class. Me and Lee read the book together to get ready for the test. I spent a lot of hours at the library. I worked hard to study and am proud that I passed the test.
We made history on the morning show, Live at 9, when me and Lee went to talk about my experiences. I talked about Literacy Mid-South and going from slipping through the cracks to passing my EPA license test. My time with Literacy Mid-South helped me in my job at the Memphis Waste Water facility. I am really touched and it’s been a blessing to me and my family.
I want my story to be based on how I was raised. It is important for the younger generation to know how to respect their elders. It’s important for me to try to help the younger generation do something. Like what I’m doing now, school, or other programs for learning. What they doing now ain’t it. They need something to do. Too much crime going on. Too many young people dying and killing one another and older people. I look at my phone – killing happen every day. Every day. Something got to give. Just talking doesn’t help.
There were no gangs around Memphis when I was growing up. I didn’t see any when my kids were growing up either. We would fight, fistfights, then be friends later the same day. We wouldn’t go to school the day we fought. We’d stay home and shoot marbles. Them days ain’t coming back.
I remember some other good old days. We used to sit out on the porch all night long. Mamma and daddy and siblings. Them were days we didn’t have air conditioning. You could leave your doors open. Didn’t worry about anyone breaking in your house, gunfire, or anybody getting hurt. Everybody sat out on the porch. Kids would run around and play.
My father would go to work in the evening and get off at midnight. He always said if you want something out of life, get out there and work for it.
So I did. I did a lot of things. I went out and did odd jobs as a teenager. When I was 14 I was chopping cotton and then picking cotton. I met the field bus that picked us up at 3rd and Crump and took us to Little Rock. I went with my older brother.
Then I used to sell eggs door to door. Me and my friend Benny Johnson. That was back in the late 70’s. The egg man used to come and pick us up every day. We would ride in his van, he would drop us off and we would walk up and down the street. He would pay us fifteen cents for every dozen eggs we sold. And I used to shine shoes in the alley by The Rendezvous. I made myself a shoeshine box. I used to charge $3 and $4 for spit shine. I do a good job and they’d give me a tip. White people would pay me $10-$20 to shine their sandals. I would walk from the Foote Homes to the alley to shine shoes.
Thanks to Stacy Early, Laurie MacGillivray, Lee Chase, Sam O’Bryant, and Russell Joy of Literacy Mid-South for their efforts and hospitality in compiling and sharing these stories.
About Literacy Mid-South: A Commitment to Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging
As a literacy organization, we understand the importance of diverse, inclusive, and historically accurate texts for both children and adults. We acknowledge the decades-long underrepresentation of BIPOC* characters in the book industry and make conscious efforts to distribute texts that are reflective of Memphis, a community made up of 64% Black citizens, 29% white citizens, and 7% citizens that identify as Hispanic or other races.
(*Black, Indigenous and people of color)
As an organization, we also understand the disproportionate barriers to employment that historically underrepresented populations, including candidates of color, candidates who identify as women, LGBTQ+ candidates, and candidates with disabilities face when entering the workplace. These considerations call for flexibility in the historically rigid minimum requirements necessary for consideration for a given position. As it pertains to hiring practices, we seek to acknowledge the value of relevant experience as it compares to an acquired degree, consider the details of the formerly justice-involved, and commit to ensuring that job postings are accessible in historically underrepresented spaces.
From an advocacy standpoint, we understand the role that literacy plays in the realization of a socially-just community. Additionally, we acknowledge the systemic barriers that create a less-literate population. These realities inform our internal initiatives, as well as our external presence in collaborative community initiatives. We strive to be an organization of literacy champions that encourages substantive learning to build cultural consciousness & proliferate pro-equity policies and advocates for public and private-sector policy that promotes cultural equity.
Lastly, we strive to center the voices of the people we serve. We recognize the unique cultural capitals and literacies of the populations we work with, and prioritize community input as it informs our programming. This is evident in our creation of neighborhood-led literacy zones, the formation of our learner council, and the centering of individual goals in our Adult Learning Program.
Our agency vision of a 100% literate Mid-South is most attainable when we prioritize these practices. Our continuous evolution requires routine examination of our strategy and a willingness to acknowledge when our work falls short of our intentions. Literacy Mid-South understands that our commitment to diverse, inclusive, and equitable practices serves our ability to make real change in the literacy rates of Memphis and the Mid-South.