The day I met Clifford, I was working in the tutoring center by myself. Traffic was slow, and I was likely reading the news online or daydreaming. Can’t remember which, but when Clifford walked in, the entire day was turned on its heel.
“Could you help me read the newspaper?” he asked shyly. “I would really like to read the fishing stories.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant until we sat down to work. But, it was just as it sounded: he needed help to read. This was not the type of work I usually did in our community college writing center, and I told him that it might be a good idea for him to take a class at the college to work on his reading skills. I wasn’t really a reading teacher.
“I did, and they didn’t help me,” he said with disdain. “Could you help me?”
How could I not?
We sat together at a table and he spread open the newspaper to the weekly fishing report. He placed his finger on the first word of the article, peered at me over the top of his glasses, and asked, “Are you ready?”
As we worked our way through the words, I learned a lot about Clifford. He was a Jehovah’s Witness. He lived alone. He was in his 50s. He had been married but his wife left him many years ago. He had a sharp wit. The teachers in elementary school never helped him. And, he loved fishing.
It took us nearly half an hour to get through one paragraph. Clifford would usually make it through three or four words, but then we would stop to sound out the ones he got stuck on. And then the questions would begin.
“You are saying that o-u-g-h can sound like ‘ew’, but in this other word it sounds like ‘uff’. Why’s that?”
“I’ve been having these spells where I get dizzy…do you know what that could be about?”
“Now, why would they spell that word like that? That doesn’t even make sense, does it?”
“Teachers in school never helped me like you are doing. Why wouldn’t they help me?”
At the end of the half hour, I printed him some copies of phonograms and sent him with homework. I told him to keep reading the paper and to come back whenever he needed to.
And come back he did.
Once he came in with a tape recorder and a file folder of papers. When I asked how he had been, he sighed. “Well, the doctor says I got the diabetes. That’s why I’ve been so dizzy.” He wanted me to help him transcribe a tape he had made of himself, recording his symptoms when he had not felt well. He also wanted me to read his paperwork from the doctor for him, as he didn’t know what it was.
Once he came in with a friend who also could not read. “Here’s the teacher,” he said when he introduced me. “I brought you another student.”
Most of the time he comes in with his newspaper, smiles, and says, "Do you have some time to help me today? I know you are busy..."
Over the last three years I’ve seen Clifford maybe three or four times a year. I always give him a big hug, and my heart swells when I see him. I’m so proud of the progress he has made. It usually takes awhile for him to warm up when he starts to read, but once he gets on a roll, he is on a roll.
I think often of the day I met him. No one like Clifford had ever stepped into our writing center, and no one else has since. To me, he embodied the spirit of learning that I wish everyone had. He was not willing to simply accept where he was, but instead fought diligently to always be better.
The day I met Clifford, I cried all the way home. I cried for the people who had hurt him, and I cried for the frustration I saw when he tried to understand our crazy phonetic system. I cried for the fellow instructor who told me, “We don’t give that kind of help here” when she saw what I was doing. But most of all, I cried because I finally felt like I had done something of worth with this fancy education I have, this degree that took me more than 20 years to get.
And I cried because I hoped that I would see Clifford again, and soon.