‘Every student has a story to tell’
Tony Johnson used to get by in school because he was a good football player, and he had art talent. Because he could not read, he began “acting out,” got into a life of crime and spent more than a decade in prison.
Julius Robinson used to get promoted at different businesses, but when his bosses learned he had lied on an application about his schooling, and that he wasn’t actually filling out paper work, he would get fired.
Johnson and Robinson are two of about 550 students that the Durham Literacy Center teaches. “Every student has a story to tell,” said Reginald Hodges, executive director of the center, at the annual DLC breakfast Thursday. Johnson and Robinson told their stories, and how learning to read has helped turn their lives around.
Born and raised in Durham, Johnson never had anyone to read to him when he was a child. At age 7, he suffered a head injury that left him deaf in one ear. When he returned to school, he said teachers often put him in the back of the classroom, unaware of his hearing problem.
He became good at football, and Johnson recalled how a teammate asked him, “How can you play, but can’t read the playbook?” Johnson got a laugh when he told the audience that all he had to do was get at the quarterback.
“I started acting out … doing stuff that you’re not supposed to do,” Johnson said. He signed up for literacy classes in prison, but his teacher showed up drunk. When he got out of prison, he was directed to the Durham Literacy Center. “There was so much love there,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for the school, I might have been back on the streets,” he said. His tutor, Sandra Leigh Smutz Cadwallader, called Johnson “my student and my inspiration.”
He said his uncle Ronald Johnson served as his role model – because he worked hard and took care of his family. “When you can read, you can stand up tall,” Johnson said. The audience gave him a standing ovation when he showed a painting he did in prison, a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., which his uncle inspired.
Robinson told his story in a video presentation that ABC 11 produced for the literacy center and that was screened at the breakfast. During an interview after the breakfast, Robinson said he lost six jobs in one year because he could not read. He credited Vanessa Alston, his social worker, with putting him in touch with DLC and his tutor, Debbie Stonehouse.
“Education is very important to me,” he said. He has been taking classes for about eight months. “I’m not where I want to be, but I thank God I’m not where I was,” Robinson said.
With better education, Robinson said he would not have made the bad choices he did. “My whole life I’m thinking it was my fault,” that he couldn’t read, he said. When Stonehouse told him he was not responsible for not knowing how to read, her words motivated him to study. In addition to being a tutor, Stonehouse “also is my friend,” he said.
Eddie Davis, a retired Durham teacher who now leads the nonprofit organization N.C. Inclusive, was the guest speaker, and praised the reach of the literacy center. “The Durham Literacy Center can give adults the confidence and the motivation to meet life’s challenges,” Davis said. The programs at the center help adults “understand they can control their own lives, and pass that on to their children,” he said.
Thursday’s breakfast was the first since the Durham Literacy Center moved into its first permanent home at 1905 Chapel Hill Road. The next major step in fundraising is to pay off the mortgage so that more resources can go toward teaching.
At Thursday’s breakfast, the Durham Rotary Reading Rangers received the DLC’s Leader in Literacy Award for their work tutoring at Y.E. Smith Elementary School and Neal Middle School.
The ABC 11 video was dedicated to Rufus Parrott, who died last year. At age 81, Parrott came to DLC and spent three years learning to read. He helped train new tutors and appeared in videos and online materials to encourage others to read, according to a DLC brochure.