Tale leads teens to learn about older people

Man learning to read at 98 resonates with students

September 22, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

The faces of the teenagers gathered inside the crowded gym at John Carroll School in Bel Air were mostly white, faces of descendants of German, Italian, Polish and Irish immigrants who settled a century ago in Baltimore, prospered, and moved to the country.

They are kids who grew up in what seem the most ordinary ways, who spent their days playing as 4-year-olds, learning to read by the time they reached school.

This summer, they all read a book about someone who had a very different sort of childhood, whose parents had a very different sort of immigrant experience. The book, titled Life Is So Good, is the story of George Dawson, an African-American, the grandson of slaves.

When he was 4, Dawson was working in the cotton fields beside his grandmother. He couldn't go to school because his family needed his help. Unable even to sign his name, he worked low-paying jobs most of his life, working seven decades to feed and house his children and outliving four wives. Finally, at the age of 98, he went to school to learn to read.

Just what resonance this story of a poor black farmer born at the turn of the 20th century in Texas had for these middle-class suburban Baltimore high school kids might be hard to imagine. But on this day, when they got back together to discuss the book, connections and intersections between these disparate realities made the distance between them seem not so far at all.

Reading the book about Dawson, by a Seattle author named Richard Glaubman, was just part of the students' summer assignment. The other part was to find and interview people 50 or older in their own community for whom George Dawson's story might be a touchstone, a connection to something in their own lives. Perhaps someone who worked from a young age, who witnessed a historical event or an incident of prejudice, and whose memory could be mined the way Glaubman did Dawson's.

A daunting summer assignment, perhaps. But consider the assignment Glaubman set himself, as he told students and faculty who gathered in the gym recently to discuss the book: Three weeks after reading about Dawson in the newspaper, Glaubman called Dawson and flew to Texas to visit him. He didn't know which of them was more surprised when he showed up, Glaubman said.

`Always say you can'

Glaubman, a teacher, wanted to know more about a man who decided to learn to read at 98. Who despite the poverty, hardship and prejudice he'd faced, hadn't let it define him. "Life is so good," Dawson's father had often told him, and he believed it.

Glaubman found the story compelling. "Your story should be recorded," Glaubman told Dawson, "but I can't do it." There was age, race, geography and 300 years of racial history between them, and Glaubman was intimidated.

Dawson replied, "Never say you can't. Always say you can," and handed Glaubman a pen.

Dawson invited Glaubman to live in his house as he began taking down his story, one he wanted to tell because his view of events was different from the one found in history books, and because there are few histories of the working class.

Dawson recounted what his grandmother and great-grandmother told him about their years as slaves, including the day they learned they were free. Still, they remained four years at their former master's farm to work off a debt, one they didn't know they owed.

He told Glaubman about going to work on a white man's farm at age 12, living in a shed and taking orders from the man and his children. About deferring to whites at all times, but proudly refusing to eat despite being famished after a day's work, because his employer left his food on the porch where she left food for dogs. About witnessing the lynching of a friend who was falsely accused of fathering the child of a white girl, and waiting in vain for justice when the baby was later born white.

He told Glaubman about his view of World War II, a white man's war that had nothing to do with him, except that he learned from returning soldiers that in France, black and white soldiers were treated the same. In his Texas, they still couldn't march in the same victory parade.

His recollection of Jackie Robinson's entry into the major leagues as the first black baseball player was told through the lens of his own experience on a baseball team, in which he and his team were denied access to restaurants while on road trips and had to eat takeout on the bus.

When he became a father, his children didn't know he couldn't read. He would check their homework by asking them to tell him about it. He learned by listening and observing.

He was retired for a decade when a recruiter for an adult education program knocked on his door and offered to teach him to read. Why not? He was tired of fishing. It took him a day and a half to learn his ABCs. After three years, he could read his favorite passage in the Bible. "The Lord is my shepherd ... "

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