Four years ago I met a young girl named Alia.
Alia was 13 the first time she came to our literacy lab. She was mentally disabled and had been attending a special school for the disabled for four years. Though she was not literate and in fact could only recognize a few letters, it was a positive sign that her family enrolled her in school while many girls her age did not go at all.
Alia’s father is a recycler, one of the ones I shared about who keeps the material of the city from being wasted. It is not a high status job and the income can be inconsistent, but he has worked hard for his family to the point that they built a home large enough to have two rooms for renters and the other 2.5 for themselves. All five of his daughters go to school, and the oldest recently completed her B.A.
Alia’s mental disabilities made it difficult for her to make progress in the literacy program. She would often make the same mistakes over and over and it could take her weeks to remember new letters. In our neighborhood negative people will often say that so-and-so can’t learn and will never be able to read. Some of those voices were especially strong when Alia started. It was unthinkable that a disabled girl could learn to read, especially one who had already been attending school without anything to show for it.
But Alia kept working passionately. About eight months after she started, her older sister Maria was hired on as one of our literacy teachers and I moved the literacy lab into a rented room in Alia’s home. That helped Alia be especially regular, coming to class every single day no matter how slow her progress was. It took Alia 128 lessons just to finish our first instructional book (the average student finishes in 31), but she passed the posttest with a score of 45/50. The girl who everyone said would never learn how to read now knew all her letters and could read two-syllable words competently!
When Alia started on the more complex aspect of our reading system called “matras” even I worried that she would never have the capacity to read competently. She was slow to remember each matra, and even when she did get the sounds right, she would usually forget the first half of the word by the time she worked out the second half. Her slow progress and almost constant errors didn’t deter Alia – she kept coming to class every day, kept working hard even when her brain wasn’t making sense of the words. Over time I began to believe that she really would learn to read one day, even if each month only showed incremental progress.
It would be untrue to say that Alia was always positive. Some days were more difficult than others. Sometimes she wanted to quit early because she was struggling, other days I had her stop early because it was clear that she wasn’t getting anywhere. Her brain was always working on the edge when it came to the written word, so after just a little bit of tiredness you could see her cross that line where she couldn’t get anything out of it. But compared to her ability level, Alia was the most positive reader we had. She kept pushing, smiled even when nothing was coming out right, would keep trying on the 10th day even if she hadn’t made any progress for the previous nine. She was in it for the long haul no matter what.
After 294 lessons Alia took the Class 3 posttest but only scored 19/50. Still, that was 19 words read correctly for a girl that no one ever believed would be able to read! She kept working, kept reading stories every day, rereading every word until it made sense even if it took her three or four tries. You could see her sisters’ pride as they realized that Alia was accomplishing something they never thought would be possible.
And she kept making progress. More than two years and 400 lessons after she had started, Alia had advanced to the point that we considered her literate. She still stumbled often, but she was reading entire stories. And she didn’t act like she had “reached” anywhere. She still kept coming, still kept reading, every day.