Reprinted with permission by the Commercial Appeal
December 23, 2012
By Wendi Thomas
It's Thursday morning, which means Charles Hadley is headed to the bus stop.
He's going to learn how to read.
By car, it's a 25-minute ride from his mother's house in Southeast Memphis to Literacy Mid-South on Cooper.
By bus, it takes two hours, which is as long as the tutoring session lasts.
Being at the mercy of such a time-sapping mode of transportation would grate on most.
Not Hadley, who regrets ending his formal education in the eighth grade.
It doesn't occur to him that as reliable, affordable transport options for people like him shrink, the efficiency of mass transit should grow.
Prison, he says sagely, taught him patience.
At Literacy Mid-South — where 75 percent of the 550 students don't have cars and 98 percent are low-income — there's little time to waste.
Starting in January, the center's volunteer tutors will go where their students are, meeting in neighborhood library branches. In 2014, Literacy Mid-South will downsize into a smaller space.
The money saved on overhead will become seed money to start high-quality literacy programs at other organizations, says Kevin Dean, the center's executive director.
Who knows if the move will help spare libraries from the perennial budget chopping block; the system was spared in June but in 2011, hours at 14 branches were shortened and 43 part-time employees lost their jobs. Literacy Mid-South isn't in the finance business. Nor can it cure the broken system that shuffled Hadley right up to high school without teaching him what "canoe" means.
In a world of words, these adults aren't full citizens, not when they can't read the instructions on a prescription bottle or even this article.
That, Literacy Mid-South can do something about.
Mapping a future
Hadley came to the center in the fall of 2011, reading on a fourth-grade level. That's better than the estimated 60 percent of inmates who read at a third-grade level or below.
But if degrees were awarded for deciphering bus schedules, Hadley, 45, would have a Ph.D.
His tutor, Vicki Murrell, a professor at the University of Memphis, actually has a Ph.D. She's lived in Memphis for 30 years and never been on a city bus.
Hadley doesn't have a driver's license, a car or the luxury of being so uninformed.
In November, voters said no to a one-cent tax on gas; much of the $300 million raised would have added buses to the most heavily traveled routes.
Hadley didn't know about the gas-tax referendum and convicted felons can't vote. He can't tell you that MATA stands for Memphis Area Transit Authority.
What he does know is how to get from his part-time job at a Taco Bell on Winchester to his girlfriend's house in Frayser, where she helps him with his homework.
He pulls a schedule from his wallet, unfolds it and drags a pencil along the grid, calling out the numbers, the times, where he transfers, what combinations he could create to get where he needs to go.
Murrell calls up the schedule on her iPhone, squints at it and sits back in her chair. She gives up.
If not for his assessment anxiety — they avoid the word "test," Murrell explains — he'd be at a seventh-grade level. If he took his GED now, he'd fail.
"The message kids get who don't finish school is that they're not smart and that's not true," Murrell says.
To be poor and survive means you've passed the exams of the streets. You can stretch a $180 paycheck over two weeks. You can get a job when even McDonald's makes you apply online and a URL might as well be astrophysics. You can hide the fact that you can't read well enough to fill out a money order with fingernails too long to hold a pen or eyeglasses lost once again.
People born into the middle class never take these tests. They might flunk if they tried.
Recently Murrell suggested they look online to find another job. That's when she discovered Hadley had never used a computer or a map.
This morning, though, he quickly finds Reelfoot Lake on the map and bends over an essay on the 1811-1812 earthquakes.
He's focused, but slow. His reading is jerky like a car with a clogged fuel line.
His index finger, which had been cruising along, pauses.
Not quite, Murrell says.
"Appearance," he says.
Like if his bus was coming down the street, Murrell coaches, it would be … "Appearing," he answers.
The lesson continues to the New Madrid fault. He can pronounce this word, but Murrell can tell he doesn't remember what it means.
"Do you remember what that word was, for the center of the earthquake?" Murrell asks.
"I forget," Hadley says.
She flips through his flash cards. Epicenter.
"That means like the middle," Hadley says. "That's the middle of everything, but I say middle. That's a simple word."
"You're learning," Murrell says.
Her compliment prompts a flood of gratitude. "Ever since I stepped foot in here, from day one, these people been good to me," says Hadley, a handsome man with a crease in his jeans sharper than a Ginsu knife.
Miss Vicki is a great teacher, he says, patient and nice and he thanks God for her.
She waves him off.
"Don't talk about me, talk about you," Murrell says, taking off her glasses to wipe her eyes.Their stories start the same: They're about the same age, both from Mississippi, both the product of public schools.
"We've lived these parallel lives, side by side," Murrell says. "Same country, totally different world."
Her life was predictably middle-class. His was not.
Born in Tunica, he moved to Chicago as a child. He was so smart, his mother bragged, he skipped kindergarten. He was still a kid when he started behaving badly. This drove his despairing mother to her knees, where she stayed for a couple of decades.
In 1992, while Hadley was in prison, his only brother was shot and killed. During a stretch in 1994 when he wasn't locked up, he was shot. After he came out of a coma, he followed his mother to Memphis, bringing his bad habits along.
He was selling and using drugs, messing with checks that weren't his. His last bid would be federal time. He was headed to court when he heard a guy, a young guy, howling like an animal. He'd just been sentenced to 25 years. Hadley was going before the same judge.
He got scared. He got on his knees. He promised God he'd do right if he got another chance.
"I've been a man of my word," he says proudly.
He did his time, two years, and was released in 2010.
The scar left on his cheek caused by a bullet is barely visible. He can feel the plate in his temple, put in by doctors at the spot where the bullet came out, but the incision has disappeared.
He's clean now and technically free, although in that purgatory where the only thing higher than his expectations for himself are the hurdles to re-entry.
If you so much as hint at the absurdity of it all, the two-and-a-half mile walk to work a three-hour shift for which he might take home $20, get comfortable: He's going to launch into an extended remix, spoken-word version of the gospel song "I Won't Complain."
He thinks he'd make a good counselor, coaching kids not to make his mistakes.
Afternoon bus rides are his internship, as he asks the kids whether they're in school and staying out of trouble.
He looks at their report cards, and even if the grades aren't the best, he gives them some change.
"I look at the effort. They're trying," he says.
"If you try, you'll be surprised. God will bless you and people will try to help you. It happened to me."
Sometime soon, Murrell hopes, they'll meet at the East Shelby branch library.
As fast as Hadley moves, it'll take him about 20 minutes to walk there.