Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Learning to read at 60

I first met Shirley in 2009, while working with an adult literacy program in DC. Shirley was sixty, a mother and grandmother, a heart attack survivor, a lifelong DC resident. She was friendly, spirited, close with the other students. And she couldn't read.

I started tutoring her that fall, and over the next three years, we met most weeks in the library or at the building where she took her classes.

At first, we read lists of simple words, and short stories about school or work or family. After a story, sometimes she would pause and tell me about her experiences.

Shirley told me she’d had trouble in school from the time she started. All her brothers and sisters did okay, but she struggled to read. Likely, she had learning disability that was never diagnosed. The teachers passed her along each year. She dropped out in the seventh grade.

As I worked with Shirley, she made small steps forward, and we progressed to reading her mail and managing her bank account and bills. She told me that this was important to her, because ever since her mother died, Shirley’s siblings had been taking advantage of her. They charged her twenty or thirty bucks anytime she needed a favor, like writing out a money order, withdrawing money from the bank, reading a piece of mail. She wanted to learn to do it herself.

Photo by Dvortygirl
She told me that she had loved and cared for her mother dearly as she aged. She had moved in with her mother as a caretaker because in Shirley’s own words, “That’s what I do. I take care of people.” Some of Shirley’s siblings seemed to busy with their own lives to trouble with their mother, but Shirley loved every moment she spent with this woman, who was her role model, guide, and best friend. Her death changed everything.

Together, Shirley and I tackled the frightening task of writing, too: handwriting, signatures, filling out forms. But it was recipes she really wanted to record. When we finally completed a selection of recipes, she named it “Shirley’s Dream Cookbook.”

She told me her favorite thing to do as a child was to go into the kitchen, sit on the countertop, and watch her mother cook. She loved the smells and colors and found that she had a penchant for cooking herself. At class potlucks, Shirley made a mean crab salad and was renowned for her pork chops. On the other hand, she didn’t bake too much. Baking requires reading recipes and making precise measurements.


After a couple years, Shirley asked me if we could start reading the Bible.

It was slow going, because the words were difficult. But she also knew them, from years of churchgoing, and it was empowering for her to learn to read phrases like my enemies have disgraced me, O Lord do not forsake me so that she could read them before bed as a prayer.

Tutoring session became almost like a Bible study, and I’m not sure which one of us was the teacher.

One day we read about the day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and she told me about the twin girls she had lost only a few days after she gave birth to them.

Another day, we read a psalm of lament, and she told me how she regretted her son’s slow descent into the wrong crowd. She had seen it happening and hadn’t known how to stop it, and it was that path and that crowd that had landed him in prison a few short months after his son was born. She’s convinced he was set up. Shirley’s son is still in jail, and Shirley misses him every day.

We read about God as a refuge and protector, and she told me her husband had survived after getting mugged one night as he walked from the bus to their apartment. He’d had eye surgery, and he couldn’t work for several months after that, but he was okay now.

We read about God’s great love for us, and she shook her head with that kind of wisdom and joy that only comes from trekking through the storm. She said, “Hallelujah.” She said, “Katie, I don’t even know where I would be without God’s faithfulness.”


Over the three years we worked together, Shirley improved her reading skills and increased her vocabulary. She opened a bank account, became comfortable with an ATM, and learned to write her own checks and money orders to pay bills. She learned to text. She learned several Psalms. She got a new apartment through DC public housing, one that has an elevator, which is better for her with her heart condition.

Every step in Shirley’s learning process was small. She still needs a lot of help with everyday tasks that require reading. She hasn’t gotten a GED or found a lawyer who can get her son out of jail or learned to read a novel. But in every small step she opened up a little more, found new independence, confidence, and determination.

Last year, Shirley was ready to share her story. She found her fifteen minutes of fame on the local NPR station, where she spoke about her experience battling illiteracy. A couple weeks later, she went with some fellow students to lobby the DC City Council for adult education funding. From memory, she testified in a packed public hearing about the difference adult literacy programs had made in her life. She absolutely nailed it.

This post is a part of my Women’s History Month project, “Honoring Women’s Stories.” You can read more about the project and see other women’s stories here.

It’s not too late if you’d like to contribute a story--your own or someone else’s. Just email me by March 12 at katiemurchisonross at gmail dot com.



  1. Yeah, I love that! She didn't have the currency of reading words (yet), but speaking them with kindness and wisdom, she had.

  2. There is nothing quite like seeing the confidence someone gains when they learn to read. Thank you for sharing this so beautifully!! What a brave, inspiring woman!

  3. Wow. Sometimes it's easy to forget that there are people who never had the opportunity, or the resources, to learn what seems a basic skill these days. This is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing!

  4. What a beautiful story. I love that you lost track of who was the teacher and who was the student. It's so good to remember that we each can learn from others.

  5. You are so amazing! I once tutored an elderly and mentally challenged woman in Algebra. It's such a different experience than dealing with children. I feel like it's more meaningful because of the different levels of enthusiasm. I love this story. Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  6. I just love this. And especially that you got to walk tis journey with her for a number of years.

  7. AMAZing story. It's so heartlifting to hear about women like Shirley and your words made her story even more touching. Thank you!