I’ll call her Kathy. She was 60 years old and my first reading student in the Frank Laubach “each one teach one” literacy program. I had had a week of intensive training provided by my church and the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board. But was I ready for this?
Kathy lived on a narrow little lane that trailed away from Belcher Circle between crowding fields of corn. I put my car window down and heard a mockingbird going through a long string of calls. The house was small but very, very neat. I parked under a chinaberry tree in the swept yard and approached the porch steps. Kathy called out to me to come in. She sat just inside the screen door. Her warm smile greeted me as I walked in and my nerves began to settle.
We sat at her kitchen table getting acquainted that first day. She said she wanted to be able to read her Bible. She was a leader in her church and yet she couldn’t read. And she wanted to be able to sign her name and even write short notes. She had dropped out of school at a young age to work. She and her husband had raised several children and often she’d “spied” on their homework but always she had to work and couldn’t take time to learn.
“I guess now I’m sixty it’s time,” she said, white teeth shining in her beautiful brown face. “Maybe if I hadn’t had this stroke I still wouldn’t think I had time.”
Before we opened her book for each week’s lesson we had prayer, each of us praying. Her prayer always began with “Thank you, God, for the blood rushing through my veins this morning.”
As we progressed through her colorful book, she caught on to the “a” looking like an apple with a leaf, to the “d” looking like a dish with a knife beside it, and to the “v” looking like a valley. She learned to read simple paragraphs. And she learned to read in her Bible.
And every day when we prayed she said, “Thank you, God, for the blood rushing through my veins.”
There were many song birds around Kathy’s house. It was easy for her to see that a “b” looked like a bird with a tall tail but, for some reason, it was hard for her to make the sound of a “b.” She would laugh at herself and, as we became more and more comfortable with each other, we would laugh together. As she rubbed an aching knee, afflicted by her stroke, she would talk about her church. She admitted one day, very shyly, that her fellow worshipers called her “Mother Kathy.”
Her main goal was to be able to stand in her church and read from her Bible to her friends.
I met her husband only a time or two. He was busy in the field and, beyond that, I think, recognized this adventure of Kathy’s as a fulfillment of a dream. He respected her privacy. I never met any of her five children except in seeing their pictures everywhere in her small living room and hearing her tell about them.
Once I took my little boy to see “Miss Kathy.” It was so sweet to see her brown hand on his blonde head as she blessed him.
Kathy faithfully covered the ground, studying all three books in the Laubach series. Some parts were very difficult but she never gave up.
One day Kathy asked me if I would come to her church the next Sunday and “stand with her” while she read Psalm 23.
“But, Kathy,” I said, “you don’t need any help. You can read it all by yourself.”
She turned that bright white smile on me and pleaded. “Please. I want you to be there with me.”
So of course I went. It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for a ship full of gold.
Kathy’s face shone that day. It was hard for her to stand but her husband provided her with a sturdy lectern. Her audience seemed to hold their collective breath as she began to read. I kept my arm around her shoulders and felt her trembling subside. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He leadeth me beside the still waters…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Never have I heard a more beautiful reading of this favorite psalm.
Everyone burst into celebratory shouts and applause when she finished.
There was a covered dish dinner after the service. My friend Nell Rose had come with me as well as my little William and we all enjoyed the bounteous feast. We were made to feel like royalty by Kathy and her friends.
Soon after her “graduating,” Kathy and her husband moved away, maybe to be closer to some of their children. I lost connection with her. Then one day I saw her obituary in the paper. Tears stung my eyes. My friend had died and I hadn’t even known she was sick. But immediately I was comforted by the sound in my head of Kathy reading “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
When I pass Belcher Circle I often think of Kathy and remember her simple thanksgiving for “the blood rushing through my veins.”
She was my student. She was my teacher.