"If someone had told me that I'd be doing this, I would've said, 'Poetry? Man, you lost your mind,'" says Matthews with a smile. "The idea of poetry, and writing, never crossed my mind."
Then, about a year ago, Matthews found himself staring at a blank piece of paper in a classroom for YMCA Educational Services (YES!), which provides educational help to adults who read and write below the sixth grade level. (In the greater New Orleans area, that's nearly one-third of all adults.) Eventually, Matthews reached for his pen and wrote "Hard Head," a two-line poem. "Every time I try to put words on paper," he wrote, "I end up scratching my head like a son of a gun."
"Hard Head" is an autobiographical work. Matthews' teacher, Jeffrey Ogle, recalls that, at first, it was difficult for Matthews to think about what to put on paper. When he had difficulty, he'd scratch his head. Now, Matthews has been in the program almost two years. He's scratching less, reports Ogle.
Matthews laughs at the head-scratching update. "I write so many poems," he says. "I got that one" -- he points at the verse called "Porter Work" -- "from the job. Another one is about going to the airport. And I have one for my sister on Thanksgiving Day. It's good, too."
The Thanksgiving poem is structured like a letter. "Dear Connie," it begins. "Thanksgiving visit every year. / I enjoy myself. / Family prays: 'Thank you.' / 'Lawrence is on the honor roll.' / 'Charlotte is going to be a doctor.' / 'Doesn't look like the Saints / are going to make it to the Super Bowl.' / Here comes the food -- smells good as a rose."
"It's hard for me to write a real letter to somebody," Matthews says. That's because he doesn't yet feel that his writing is good enough and so he gets nervous, he says, "trying to get it all out of my head." Yet somehow conveying those thoughts as poetry takes the pressure off. The result -- Matthews' poems -- are boiled down and precise. Sort of like his speech.
"I know I'm a quiet person. I'm not much for talking," he says. "Poetry's trying to make me open up. It doesn't have to be correct English. It expresses how I feel."
Tonight Ogle and Matthews are sitting side by side at a long table, going through a stack of phonics worksheets. Ogle marks a few corrections and explains them quietly. Matthews nods at the explanations and asks about some words he's been seeing and wants to learn. Another student, Tracy, sits on the other side of Ogle. He just started here two months ago, Tracy says, and he'd prefer that his last name not be used. He actually walked to this class because he didn't want his friends seeing his car outside and asking what he was doing in this area. But he's already starting to understand how powerful reading can be.
"I'm very headstrong now," he says. He used to be reluctant even to go riding with his friends because he was worried that they would ask, "Hey what did that sign say?" But now, he says, he's starting to read and feels ready to conquer anything.
Most class sessions are like this -- discussions between friends and what Ogle calls the "three s'es": sound, syllables, spelling. Then, once a week, students from Tulane University, Dillard University and University of New Orleans come into classes like Ogle's to lead creative-writing sessions.
Earlier this year, YES! published an anthology of the work written during those sessions by the program's adult-literacy students. It's titled Courage From Behind the Mask, because, writes one student, "not knowing how to read and write is a mask that keeps you from being in touch with the world." The book was edited by Ernest Lewis at YES!, photographer Sarah Eva Krancic, and by three Tulane creative-writing students: Sundance Banks, Cat Cutillo and Hamilton Simons-Jones.
Three of Matthews' poems are included in the anthology. He's also writing other things like his own checks and his own deposit slips. "Before I used to go with someone who could do a little reading. Now I go myself," he says. "The classes give me confidence in myself."
Matthews has a steady, longtime position as a porter for nearly 20 years. It's a job, he says, that doesn't necessarily require this reading and poetry-writing. "But it ain't going to hurt it, it's going to help it," he explains. "Maybe in the future, I might become an engineer or something like that."
Almost without exception, learning to read infuses adults with something new -- a mix of boldness, confidence and optimism. Their new vibe is markedly different from what originally walked through that door, says Marjery Freeman, who headed up YES! for nine years and continues work within the field as a literacy activist here in town.
"I could draw a cartoon," Freeman says. "It would show a person walking in, looking at the floor and when you ask a question, not making eye contact and answering in an almost mumbled voice. When you ask them what they'd like to do, they say, 'I don't know, I guess I want to learn to read.'"
Usually, after months or sometimes even weeks, all of that has changed, says Freeman. "What you see, and you can ask the teachers, you see shoulders back, heads up, eye-contact made. Then the voice starts. It's a transformative process. To see this kind of thing happen is very exciting."
Observations like Freeman's are essential. So are published works like Courage From Behind the Mask. That's because successes at YES! are measured differently than most literacy programs. The staff at YES! can tell you that, during the year 2000, approximately 800 students within their program completed 28,000 hours of one-on-one and small-group instruction. That's unlike many literacy groups, says Freeman, which are judged by how many students earn GEDs. "For programs like YES!, that number (GED) would be zero," Freeman notes. The reason: YES! works with people at lower reading levels.
Other funders use job-readiness as a gauge. Nisha Patel, a policy analyst with the national Center for Law and Social Policy, says that adult basic education programs like YES! are not federally accepted activities for the first set of "countable" hours under the 1996 welfare law. "If your goal is literacy," Patel explains, "that would be in contrast to the goal of many state welfare programs, who really see their goal as work."
A local project called the Literacy Initiative analyzed some of these limitations, definitions and roles in a process that began in April 2001. Over a year's time, people from 50 different organizations -- schools, businesses, governmental bodies and literacy groups -- met regularly to create a market analysis on literacy and to research and observe existing programs here and across the country. The Initiative recently published a 19-page report (www.boggslit.org) and created a new group called the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, based out of the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola University. The alliance, unique in the nation, is modeled after the concept of groups such as Unity for the Homeless, which spearheads the local response to homelessness by applying for public and private monies and then distributing them on a local level.
Lou Johnson, executive director of YES!, was one of three literacy providers elected to the Literacy Alliance board. Part of his role on the board is to better explain low-level reading and illiteracy to people who don't yet understand it.
One of his best tools for explaining illiteracy may be Courage From Behind the Mask -- yet that's the project that might be most in danger. Most adult literacy funding comes from the federal government, and creative writing doesn't fall into the category of traditional job-readiness skills. This means the creative writing sessions continue only with the help of the Arts Council of New Orleans and through philanthropic giving.
"It's getting to be more and more burdensome," says Johnson, "because this work -- creative writing -- is not about educating a workforce."
"I've had this problem as long as I can remember," says Jeanell Edwards. She's 35 years old, and she recalls that, as a child, doctors told her parents that she seemed to have some sort of blockage that prevented her from retaining anything she might learn.
When Edwards' daughter Tiffany was born 20 years ago, Edwards memorized the spelling of her daughter's name by writing it on a piece of paper. "I would write it and write it and write it. And it was just like it stuck there. I can hold on to stuff pretty good." In fact, says Edwards, "there's nothing I can't do except read."
Edwards is a YES! student. She has a poem in Courage From Behind the Mask titled "I Couldn't Do It." It's about a job she had at a dollar store in Mississippi, working as a stock person. "One day," she wrote, "I was asked to work the cash register. I had to complete a form. I couldn't do it. I started crying so I went home. And I realized that I need school."
From a larger perspective, what Edwards is writing about is what YES! Executive Director Lou Johnson calls "a personal wall." He explains: "It could be at Bible study at church, it could be grandchildren requesting to read their favorite book, or asking a neighbor one too many times to fill out a money order to pay a bill." Johnson says that many students acquire basic reading skills by the time they're 10 years old. "So a 40-year-old has had 30 years to contend with not being able to master it. With once again training someone who will be their supervisor because they don't have the skills to master the job themselves."
The local Y began literacy work back in 1980, when it was asked by the Greater New Orleans Federation of Churches to manage a literacy program that the federation had started in 1977. It was a volunteer-based program, connected with an organization then called Laubach Literacy Action, now ProLiteracy Worldwide. "The organization was formed in the 1920s by a missionary named Dr. Frank Laubach, who evolved this philosophy of people being able to learn from one another," says Marjery Freeman. "Which is to say that somebody would teach somebody else to read and then that person would have the obligation and civic responsibility to teach somebody else to read. It's called the 'each one-teach one' method."
The original name of the organization was Operation Mainstream, because, says Freeman, the idea "was to have Christian volunteers who would help to bring people who could not read and write and give them the skills to become part of the mainstream of America." In 1995, when Freeman began heading up the organization, the name and a few other things changed.
Freeman had come from a background of what's called participatory education, rooted in the philosophy of Paolo Freiere, a Brazilian educator who worked with literacy in South America. "Freiere believed that people, when they got the tools to read and write and then got a sense of their own condition and their own society, would have more capacity to change their lives and determine their own futures," she says.
History's examples of how literacy is part of social transformation includes Gandhi's work in India or the civil rights era's Freedom Schools, says Freeman. "They were giving adults in the South who had been denied an education an opportunity to learn to read and write so that they could become voters. That was the model that I felt was really a good one to use in the work we were doing within the YMCA."
And so, during Freeman's time at YES!, the organization moved from being volunteer-centered to being student-centered. They took classes out into the community, to what are now 27 different sites. "Most of our classes are in neighborhoods where a lot of people with limited reading and writing skills live. Our purpose is to be there so that our students can feel comfortable," Freeman explains.
They also need to be close to potential students because those students might not otherwise recognize that they need help, says Freeman. "Because most people who can't read and write very well convince themselves that they're doing okay. Research shows that 75 percent of people who are reading at Literacy Level 1, which is functionally illiterate, think that they can read just fine. Because they're getting along, they're making it."
Freeman brought YES! to a different level of literacy education, says program director Doug Anderson. "Because there's a connection," he says, "between poverty and illiteracy, a relationship between incarceration and illiteracy." As a result, the organization now reaches past reading and writing, toward social justice. "We call it 'literacy and justice for all,' says Anderson.
The first day of creative writing class, Tulane students Cat Cutillo, Sundance Banks and Hamilton Simons-Jones walked into class carrying a sack of potatoes. It was an idea they'd gotten from their professor, Peter Cooley, who in 1998 began the collaboration with YES!.
For the next two hours, the YES! students wrote about nothing else. It led to poems like "The Welder's Potato," which is reprinted here. Each week, they came in with different teaching tools, sometimes a group poem where each person added a line, sometimes a first line that everyone would use for his or her own poem.
One thing became clear early on. Each week, they would type up everyone's poems and then hand them back. "Their work felt more legitimate because it was in print," says Cutillo. "I think it really was the pivotal point when they started taking themselves seriously."
The trio of students made an anthology in the fall of 2000, their first year. But it was a cut-and-paste job done at Kinko's as a gift for the YES! students. When they decided to make an anthology for 2002, they had a different audience in mind -- the general public. They consulted with the students, says Banks, who "wanted the book to have some political implications too. They wanted to educate people about adult literacy." The resulting book carries -- along with the poems -- big bold statistics like "90 percent of welfare recipients did not finish high school" and "46 percent of American adults cannot understand the labels on their prescription medications."
Lou Johnson remembers that they had hosted a reception for the creative-writing students and they'd invited a lot of prominent local politicians and citizens. Not many of them showed. So one student stood up, Johnson recalls, and said, "The big people aren't here but we're the big people." Furthermore, said the student, those big people would soon be hearing from them anyway. "That what comes out of this program," says Johnson. "When people find their voice, they go from a whisper to a scream."
What really got me down about not knowing how to read wasn't not being able to make sense of the love letters from my girlfriend when I was 13, or misunderstanding manuals and diagrams on engine parts in trade school, or even knowing I would never be able to move up the ladder at work. There are ways to get around all that. You write back "I love you" in all capital letters, find a fellow and bribe him in secret to read each chapter to you, and get used to saying, "I ain't got my glasses ... What's that say?"
What really got me down was when my little girl, Amanda, would crawl in my lap and ask me to read her a book. She had this one book, The Little Animals. She asked me to read it all the time. Amanda would come to me with new books and I would try to make up the stories by looking at the pictures, but it was hard for me. I'd tell her to ask her mother. Now she is fourteen. I hope I'm still alive when she has a child of her own. I will sit her child on my lap and read to her all night long.
From the introduction to Courage From Behind
Michael J. Polit, Marrero class
by James Matthews, Howard Avenue class
Change the light bulbs.
Change temperature in office building.
Paint water tower.
That's my job.
Never enough time.
Add it to my list.
Wherever We Want
by Mario Moreira, Jr., Hispanic Apostolate Uptown English as a Second Language (ESL) class
After a hard week, David and Thomas went to fish and relax. There they saw many sailboats on the lake. They thought, "One day we will buy a sailboat like that and we can go wherever we want, go around the world to know many countries and different people." They didn't catch any fish because they thought a lot about sailboats. When they got home their wives didn't believe they went fishing.
They asked, "Then where did you go? If you went fishing, then where are the fish?" Because of that they slept on the sofa for three days.
On Memory Street
A group poem by the Howard Avenue class taught by Jeffrey Ogle
On Piety Street, I found peace because God strengthened me.
On Spruce Street, they have good people.
On Phillip Street, I played football with the guys.
On Roman Street, I remember monsters.
On 9th Street, I used to hang out all hours of the night.
On Madrid Street, I love to play with my big dog, Joe.
On Tita Street, I bought my first car.
On Roger Williams Street, I bought my house. I bar-b-que in my backyard.
On Spruce Street, my bicycle was stolen. Now I walk and walk and walk.
On Parker Street, I used to play in the grass.
On Spain Street, my father's car was stolen.
On Wickview Lane, Miss Janice would take care of me every day after school.
On Mandolin Street, I have good memories from my childhood.
On Glasco Street, I brought red beans and rice to the family picnic.
On Jackson Street, I was racing my bike to get here on time.
On Crawfish Boils
A group poem by the Marrero class taught by Vincente Paulino
It's Barq's root beer in the backyard.
It's children, friend and family laughing.
It's big, red, juicy crawfish tails,
and eatin' 'em hot just after they're cooked.
It's cayenne pepper, hot potatoes, and corn.
It's messy juices all over my shirt.
It's boiled shrimp marinated in seasonings,
and the crawfish fightin' to get out of the pot.
It's well-flavored with onions, peppers, and lemons.
It's nasty seasoning with too much salt.
It's sucking the heads and plucking the tails
and listenin' to Maze and swingin' it out.
By Lula Young, New Orleans East class
How sweet he was
when he was on his sick bed.
I liked to kiss him on the mouth,
because he was so sweet.
I hate to see him go away,
but God has called him home.
He could not taste so good,
but I wanted to feed him like a baby.
He was my baby. I love him very much.
He was a very pretty man,
and he looked good in his clothes.
When he wore them, I knew he loved me
very much. I hate to see him go away.
I met him in the country in Mississippi
at the church on the church ground.
I wasn't old enough to talk to him.
He told me he was going to wait on me.
I am sorry he had to go away,
but God loves him best.
The Blue Jeans
By Enez McMillan, Marrero class
I liked the Blue Jeans.
It was just a plain ordinary pair of jeans.
But it sure made me feel special.
I looked fantastic.
Whenever I wore my favorite jeans, I would stop traffic.
The Welder's Potato
LV Mason, Marrero class
When we'd weld and have
I used to get
burnt eye and we'd slice it and put it
on my eye
And cut it and
it'd draw all that fire
all that soreness
out of your eye.
It'll draw it all
out. Yeah, it'll do
a bit of right.
All excerpts from Courage From Behind the Mask © 2002 by YMCA Educational Services and reprinted with permission. The anthology is available at the Community Book Center and the Maple Street Book Shop. Sarah Eva Krancic's photo essay "Paper Wings" can be seen at www.luckyface.org/photography/literacy. To volunteer or learn more about YES!, call 566-READ (566-7323) or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For other volunteering options, the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans (864-7041) has a complete list of literacy organizations within the area.