Piecing It All Together
S. Regina Burrichter teaches adult literacy at Project HOME’s Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs.
I looked at the cover of the book: One Fat Summer. Probably a light story of summertime teen-age romances, thought I, the teacher and tutor of Eric Darnell Bordley.
Eric, age 42, is taking an adult literacy class at the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs. He is forthright and can be quite verbal – if you draw out patiently and persistently pieces of his jigsaw-puzzle life. Normally, however, he is withdrawn and a “run-in-the-mill” person with depression as a constant in his life. It was no wonder that we had to work hard at eradicating his low self-image.
Eric only came for tutoring one day a week. The other day, when this teacher was available for teaching at Honickman, he had to report to his mentoring program elsewhere.
We had been reading and studying from a workbook called Endeavor for about five months when I decided to wet his interest in reading by selecting, at random, a paperback. It was One Fat Summer. The key characters in the book were easy to get to know: Bobby, the overweight teen, a self-styled “weakling;” his starry-eyed sister, Michelle; their well-educated, protective mom; Willie Ramson, the area’s infamous bully, and Dr. Kahn, the stingy, rich, and well-known estate owner.
Eric was scared when I first asked him to read it. How would he know the big words he would see? How would he understand and talk about what he read? He knew he couldn’t spell words as simple as “beach.” He couldn’t write one full sentence without getting help on every other word.
We proceeded slowly. We started with one chapter, five and a half pages, proceeded to three chapters a week and went on to five or more chapters, weekly.
After two months, Eric came to class as usual. But surprisingly (to both himself and his teacher), his feedback on what he had read during the previous week was astounding. For someone who only spoke when spoken to, he could give a detailed (accurate, chronological) reporting on the events in the life of the protagonist, Bobby Marks. Maybe the story was taking hold. Maybe he was projecting himself into the book. Maybe he really liked to read and never had the opportunity. (More for the teacher-tutorer to explore in the jigsaw puzzle life of Eric.)
When Eric had arrived at a somewhat comfortable stage of talking about Bobby’s story, it was time to get into some of the issues underlying the pleasant, seemingly non-descript scenes.
The first issue was bullying. Ransom was jealous of Bobby, who had been hired by Dr. Kahn for a lawn-mowing job he had acquired from Dr. Kahn – the very job Ransom had the previous summer). The bully began stalking his easy prey, Bobby.
Eric does not like bullies, especially bullies who use some advantage over anyone who can’t resist their attack. (Ransom was older than Bobby and had some followers just like himself). My student was genuinely saddened every time Ransom threatened Bobby. In his own teen years, Eric knew some other teens who existed days on end with intimidation. He claims he has a rebellious side to him and he has learned how to avoid bullies – at least somewhat.
My student rarely missed a class in an eight month period. The one he missed stands out: The night previous to his absence he had attended the dance recital of his fifteen-year-old daughter. (Her existence barely came into any sharing on his life.) The good relationship this brought to light was an open door for an issue on the family life of the fictional Bobby Marks. A reader could prefer the rights of the mother to know the details of her teen daughter’s romantic life, or on the other hand, a reader could select the bond between the brother, Bobby, and his sister, Michelle, to guard a confidence. Eric summed up his position. “I go along with the brother and sister. There was loyalty in how they acted. My mom and pop had seven kids. I never saw any loyalty in my own family or in any other, in my whole life.”
The character of Dr. Kahn in One Fat Summer provided another issue for Eric to think about and compare with situations in his own life. The issue pertained to payment for the summer lawn mowing job. The ad describing the job stated $1 an hour as payment. Due to unforeseen circumstances, it was changed to 75 cents per hour. Next, the payment was scaled down to 50 cents an hour. The total week’s pay ended up as $7.87, instead of $22.50, the just wage that Bobby expected. The exhausted teen felt, however, it was better than having nothing!
What was the part that bothered Eric? Dr. Kahn was a man who had more than enough. The teen job seeker was vulnerable. He was unable to speak up for his rights. (It was easy to see that Eric was relating to Bobby Marks.) The person who “had it all” squeezed “the guy who just wanted what was fair”.
One Fat Summer, which Eric read in two months, was the first book he read in 32 years. The issues in the story – bullying, loyalty between siblings, the rights of a mother to know the whereabouts of her teenage daughter, power gained by taking advantage of someone weaker – are as current today as they were in 1977 (when the book was published). My student with a jigsaw puzzle type of life could relate to these issues and was magnetized out of his habitual “shell of reserve” into an amazing revealer of opinions and stances from the richness of his own life experiences. Building on this success, Eric now hopes to one day obtain his GED and eventually become a Certified Nursing Assistant.
Thanks to Project HOME and the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs for affording the kind of education that is changing mightily the future of Eric Darnell Bordley.