It was May, and the windows of the Black Belt Literacy Action office were open to the wisteria-scented breeze. Fields of inch-high, pale green tobacco plants rolled away to the edge of the known world. The director, a young white man with serious eyes, opened a folder on his desk and alternately studied it and me. His assistant, an older black woman with nervous hands, brought me a glass of sweet tea and hovered nearby. The point of it all was this: Was I committed enough, capable enough to change Vergie Latham’s life?
They told me stories about Vergie Latham before they asked me if I would take him on as a client, in the same way that the lady at the
Humane Society had told me stories about Buster before asking if I’d
adopt the one-eared mutt. In both cases, I knew the stories had been
carefully selected to elicit a ‘yes.’ But that’s the kind of citizen I
am, I suppose. I can’t resist a sad story.
I sat in the director’s office, facing a poster with smiling faces that read, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Literacy.” Here and there around the walls were thumb-tacked bumper sticker-sized affirmations: Success is an attitude. And: Defeat may test you; it need not stop you. And: Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Vergie Latham was 74 years old and the color of the Marengo County soil that he had sharecropped all his life. He lived in a cedar shake cabin with a root cellar a quarter mile off a two-lane blacktop road and another flat mile from a small general store where it was his misfortune to have traded for most of those years. That spring of 1975, he could neither read nor do arithmetic.
Every month, Vergie carried his social security check and his electrical bill to the store where the owner, Floyd Alway, opened the envelopes and read the totals to Vergie. The old man signed over his check with his mark, a slanted V, to Floyd, who paid him out of the till. Vergie then paid for the electricity bill out of that money, and Floyd mailed the bill off to Alabama Power in an envelope with his own.
Because Vergie did not read newspapers or the letters that periodically came from the government, which announced increases in his social security payments over the years, he could not know that Floyd Alway was paying him far less than the value of the check. At the time I met Vergie, he believed that the government was giving him the same amount -- $373 -- that he’d received every month for the previous nine years, and he was grateful for it.
Nor did he know that the sum Floyd charged for his electrical bill would have covered a family of four with air conditioning, rather than a two-room cabin with just two light bulbs and a well pump.
Vergie Latham’s only relationship with a book was with the Holy Bible, but that, too, had filtered down to him through the sands of human dishonesty. As he was growing up, his stern and sour-faced Aunt Felicia treated him to her version of scripture that emphasized hellfire and punishment over love and caring. She had made the young Vergie memorize passages that, in fact, appeared nowhere in the Bible. She, and a succession of preachers, had convinced Vergie that it was his solemn duty to wash and wax the floors of the Light of Rehoboth AME Zion Church every week, cut the grass, repair the roof and chop wood for the stove in winter because the Bible demanded it of him. He had been the congregation’s beast of burden for more than 60 years – labor he might have given freely anyway out of his native goodness.
It was agreed that I would drive to Vergie’s house every Tuesday afternoon to give him reading lessons, using the workbooks and texts provided by Literacy Action. I had an armful of other books, as well – a second grade speller, the poems of A.A. Milne, The Young Person’s Guide to Horses -- which eventually, I hoped, Vergie would be able to read as he progressed. Teaching illiterate adults to read was a delicate matter, the director had impressed upon me.
“We call them clients, not students. And don’t expect too much,” he’d said.
I arrived at Vergie’s cabin in my shiny city car with my shiny city attitude. I was going to liberate Vergie Latham from his prison of ignorance and victimhood. I believed that a man was not free who couldn’t read. If I had been a cartoon, I would have been Mighty Mouse and my theme music would have been: Here I come to save the day!
Vergie was waiting for me on his carefully swept plank front porch. He had set two straight-backed chairs and a battered card table under the eaves on the north side of the cabin where the sun would not be in our eyes.
He was wearing a perfectly starched and ironed white shirt with a blue tie, neatly pressed grey work pants and exquisitely shined leather work boots. His grey hair was cut short and combed. Everything in his bearing and dress spoke to the importance of this occasion, which was nothing less than his first day of school.
When he took my hand in greeting, the current flowed to me from him, not the other way around as I had expected. My cartoon self melted.
“You sound like the radio,” was the first thing Vergie said to me.
I laughed. “What station do I sound like?”
He said, “The evening news on the station that comes out of the university. You sound like… Ni-Na Toten-berg.”
We began, as the program dictated, with alphabet letters, then short strings of letters. Over the next month, we moved on to repetitions of words linked with the articles – a, an and the.
It was July, airless and feverish, and we had moved the table to Vergie’s porch where he ran an extension cord to a fan, but we still dripped on the pages. He brought his Bible to the table and opened it to a place marked by a faded red ribbon. The portion was from the Book of Matthew.
“You will be able to read this for yourself by next year this time,” I reassured him.
“Can we go faster?” he said.
Some evenings I would read aloud to Vergie from the beginnings of stories to lure him deeper into the pages where new words lurked. On other evenings, we would print in the workbooks, filling pages with common words that he would have need of in his everyday life.
“How about tobacco and corn and hogs?” he might ask me. Then we would practice reading those words using sentences I invented, such as “Vergie Latham had two hogs and a lot of tobacco on his farm. The corn was tall.”
By the end of July, Vergie was able to read 200 common words. He asked me to help him learn arithmetic, so we added the numbers and simple addition and subtraction to our menu. I stayed at the small table across from him later and later. I didn’t leave until the fireflies blinked and the whippoorwills called.
By late August, Vergie was able to sound out the words in the headlines of the Selma Times-Journal. He lingered over the names of important people and places that he’d heard on NPR evening news. One week, I brought a map of North America to our lesson. I spread it out on the table and together, we explored the continent like Lewis and Clark finding the boundary waters for the first time. Vergie bent over the table, tracing the Mississippi with reverent fingers. I slowly pronounced every word he touched and he repeated after me. The next week when I returned, he recited all the states and pointed to each one, without error.
The Tuesday after Labor Day, the director of the Black Belt Literacy Action office paid a visit to test Vergie’s progress. I stepped off the porch and walked the perimeter of the yard for a while to give them privacy. It was a routine procedure in the course of every client’s process. Tutors were given one year to complete the course. Vergie was nervous at first, but then his self-consciousness left and he found his rhythm. I could hear the steady hum as he assailed the reading test in an unbroken stream of perfect fluidity. I sat under a catalpa tree where caterpillars had turned the leaves into lace gloves and felt purely happy.
Vergie’s social security check arrived that day. He opened it in front of the director and me at his formica-topped table made from a section of kitchen counter. When he had read the check he quietly folded it and slid it into a pocket.
“Vergie,” I said, “about Floyd. What do you want to do?”
“I guess… nothin’. Ain’t nothin’ to do.”
The director cleared his throat. “Well, we could help you bring charges against Mr. Alway. You are entitled to a refund of money he shorted you. It could amount to quite a lot.”
Vergie looked around his cabin a while then rubbed his eyes.
“That sound like… that could wear me out.”
We sat in silence then with only the sound of the fan indoors and the raw rasp of cicadas outdoors.
“I could of learnt to read a while back, I reckon. But I didn’t. I was a stubborn fool. Floyd, he did what any man would do when he see a fool comin. I got no task with that man.”
I stayed a while longer that day, and before I left Vergie and I agreed on the subject of geography to be our course of study the coming week,
Vergie graduated from Literacy Action in January, five months ahead of schedule.
I do not know for sure where his new skill took him. I’d like to think he struck out for the territories, travelling light, his white shirt gleaming in the moonlight and a map of America in his grasp.