Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Learning to read

He was 32 years old, a gang member, finishing out his second stint in “the joint” when I met him.  The first stint was a five year stretch “down the road” (prison) for attempted murder.  This one,  a year for a far less offense.  He was a product of the system – pre “no child left behind” – one missed, passed along in school, left behind…why?  Good question.  That’s the mystery.  Everything changed his eleventh grade year when he got in trouble and was sent to a (last) alternative school and made to ride the short bus.  Eventually he dropped out and hit the streets.  The rest is obvious.

I’d heard stories, even seen documentaries on ESPN about student athletes who were pushed through school with passing grades merely because they could throw a football with accuracy or nail a three point shot.  But Alan (not his real name) didn’t fit this category.  He wasn’t an athlete.  Alan was just a kid from the inner city – as inner city as one can be from Lynch-vegas.  There lies the mystery – the why?  Why and how did he make it all the way to the eleventh grade without being able to read?  Now when I say “without being able to read” I don’t mean he had trouble or that he read at a low primary school level.  

Alan couldn’t read a lick – zip, nada…zero!

I have to admit that fear rushed through my body when I was first approached – the kind of timidity that goes along with “what have I got myself into”!  It was one of those scenarios when your mouth leads before your brain has the opportunity to think.  Sort of like a knee jerk reaction.  I hadn’t been at the correctional facility that I’m currently held very long when one of the guards approached me and asked if I’d ever taught.  He knew that I’d worked at a university, and I guess from that he reasoned that I had been a professor of some sort - which actually couldn’t be further from reality.  Sure, I’ve taught…leadership classes, addiction seminars as well as Christian growth and discipleship courses…but I’m neither a professor nor a teacher by formal training.  Hence, how my mouth got ahead of my brain – in a knee jerk sort of way – and I quickly said yes to his question without listening to the entire proposal.  The guard wanted to know if I’d be willing to teach Alan…how to read.  Now, it took me about 30 seconds to realize what I’d just agreed to – then it hit me – READ!!!  I didn’t have a clue how to teach someone to read!  In fact, back in school, reading definitely wasn’t my strong suit – just ask my fourth grade special reading teacher (which would actually be impossible…she’s gone down the road too, but in a different sense of the word).  But there I was – color me stupid – committed to teach Alan how to read.  

God help me.  

No, it was more like God help Alan!

The bottom line of it all was I didn’t even know where to start.  However, it didn’t take me long to figure it out after our first session.  The beginning, the very beginning was going to be our point of entry. So on our second meeting I wrote the 26 letters of the alphabet on a dry erase board and taught Alan the difference between consonants and vowels, along with their respective sounds.  

Needless to say, it was a slow process.  One filled with both frazzled frustration and extreme exhilaration at every turn.  But as we ground it out, slowly but surely, session after session, twenty-four after twenty-four, Alan began to get it.  The funny thing is…I’m not sure who was learning more – him or me?  Alan, at age 32, building upon the basics was learning to read.  

On the other hand, I, “the teacher”, was relearning the importance of 

relying and applying basic life principles in my own life.

In fact, if you read my previous post entitled “doing time – linking twenty-fours” then you’ve already had a taste of one of the basic principles that God reminded me of while teaching Alan.  As I mentioned earlier, each day in the classroom presented different challenges.  At times Alan would become frustrated because he didn’t feel he was progressing as fast as he thought he should.  So in order to encourage him, I would go back to a lower level reading book and have him read.  After he would breeze through the assignment, I’d point out to him how far he had come and then go on to coach him on the importance of doing the best he could in each twenty-four and how by linking them together he would – twenty-four by twenty-four – ultimately achieve his goal of learning how to read.  It was from my own coaching that God began to remind me of the importance of living and linking twenty-fours in my own life.  If you haven’t had a chance to read my post “doing time – linking twenty-fours”, give it a read.  It goes into greater detail explaining more of what I’m talking about.

Even if I were to try and explain what the environment and atmosphere of jail is like, it would fall ridiculously short of reality.  It’s one of those location things – unless you’ve been there, it’s impossible to imagine.  But in order to make my next point, let me take a stab (no pun intended) at describing it.  It’s a stress-filled hyperbaric environment, doused with a Middle School mentality and behavior that is poisoned with applauded rebellion, inflamed worldliness and unadulterated evil, where the things of God are grossly misunderstood and/or flat out blasphemed.  

You must constantly stand guard against these things or risk being sucked in.

On occasion there were times when, for various reasons, Alan and I were not allowed to go over to the classroom to study for several days in a row.  When we were finally allowed to get back at it, I noticed that it would take Alan longer to get in the groove of things as opposed to when we were able to read and study day after day.  I also noticed that these time lapses were a source, if not the main component of most of his learning frustrations!  It was through Alan’s frustrations that I learned the importance of consistently keeping the reading lessons in front of him on a day-to-day basis.  In turn this reminded me how very important it is to keep the things of God in front of me daily as well.  I realized that most of my own frustration within this hyperbaric petri dish on steroids can be traced back to…a lapse in days - a lapse in days of keeping the things of God in front of me.  In order to stand against the distractions and confusions of life, I must remind myself about the TRUTH of God daily.  Why?  Because the sum of the matter is, the world we live in is manufactured, manipulated and marketed based on a LIE – a lie shrouded with self-centered, self-conscious and self-seeking lures that deceive us into thinking the world revolves around us.

-         Take what you want.
-         Do what you please.
-         Others don’t matter.
-         Promote yourself.
-         You can be your own god (the ultimate of all lies).

Left to our own thinking for very long, anyone of use can fall prey to the deterioration of the LIE.  But know this –

the TRUTH trumps the lie every time!

And the TRUTH is God’s WORD!

When I remind myself daily of who God is – who I’m not – but most importantly who I am in Christ, by His grace, I am able to endure and persevere through the craziness of the lies this world can dish out.
These two lessons that I learned while teaching Alan how to read are merely examples of the plethora of things Alan taught me.  It’s experiences like this that make me smile, shake my head and appreciate the Creator of all creation in a fresh new way.  God is never short on tools that He uses to shape, mold and teach His children.  Role reversal was His tool selection this time – I only thought I was the teacher.

Big love…

…from the inside…ray-ray


  1. This is such a parallel to discipling a new believer!! We far too often try to go over their head, thanks so much for this. it's a beautiful story.

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