MAXWELL:  Passing on the gift of literacy

5/27/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Each One Teach One” is the motto of the Laubach method that is used by most adult reading programs nationwide, including the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg.

Over the years, these four little words have inspired thousands of volunteer reading tutors. One newly qualified tutor who has been inspired by these words is George Stevenson, a 38-year-old press helper.

The story of how Stevenson became a tutor is extraordinary and is itself an inspiration.

While attending elementary school in Rochester, N.Y., where he was born, Stevenson discovered that he had trouble reading. He told no one, struggling through those early years without being found out even by his closest friends and relatives.

“When I got in ninth grade, though,” he said, “I really realized that I was having trouble with my school work. It got a little bit worse as I got older. I was embarrassed. I got by by pulling strings out of the air.

“Sure, I could read and understand some, but it was difficult for me to get up in front of people and read aloud. It made me feel like I was really a nobody. I covered up by being a loudmouth. I never got in trouble _ just a loudmouth getting by.”

In addition to getting by in class, he disguised his problem well enough to become the manager of his school’s sports teams and later an offensive tackle and defensive guard on the football team.

Like millions of other Americans with reading difficulties, Stevenson graduated from high school, guarded his secret closely and built a life for himself and his family. Because he could cope with most situations requiring reading, he did not see an urgent need for help.

Four years ago, however, he decided to stop “pulling strings out of the air” and find himself a reading tutor. But first he needed a push. One day, he received a news clipping from a longtime friend in Ohio. The story featured his friend’s success in a Laubach reading program. Stevenson had vivid memories of his friend’s reading problems.

“Whenever I went out to dinner with him and his wife, I noticed that she always helped him with the menu” Stevenson said. “She would make suggestions to him from the menu. The newspaper clipping about him learning to read and my wife, Barbara, saying, “Why don’t you do something to improve your reading?’ coaxed me into improving myself. It sparked the fire under me to get it going.”

He contacted the Literacy Council’s branch that met at Dixie Hollins High School. Here, he met Jan Allyn, the tutor who would change his life. After a year, Stevenson said, he began to read with greater understanding, which makes him feel more competent on his job.

“Learning to read better has given me more confidence in myself,” he said. “I feel more confident in talking to people. And I don’t have to be boisterous and hide anymore. Learning to read better has also made me want to teach others.”

A few weeks ago, Stevenson’s dream to help others came true when he completed a Laubach tutoring course. He is looking forward to getting his first student _ or students.

Virginia Gildrie, supervising tutor trainer for the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg, has taught reading for 25 years. She is awed by Stevenson’s accomplishment: “This is the first time in my experience that we’ve been able to do this. Usually, even if a student is qualified to tutor, they’re unsure of themselves. Often, they have so many other things in their lives since they’re poor readers, that they don’t leave a lot of space to do something for somebody else. George is different. He’s special. He also is one of two students on our board of directors.”

Allyn agrees that Stevenson is exceptional. “Improving his reading, speaking and writing skills really did a lot to improve his self-confidence,” she said. “That was the biggest benefit to him, just helping him see himself as more competent and abled.”

Because they have low self-esteem and are easily embarrassed, Stevenson is particularly concerned about adults with reading problems. As he waits for his first student, he offers this advice: “No matter what your age is, you should learn to read. Older people need to learn how to read, too.”