We’re busy finishing up PEN America 11. In the meantime, here’s another guest post—this one from Joan Downs, a retired magazine editor and writer and member of PEN, “whose second act, teaching adult literacy, is just as involving and perhaps more important than the opener.”
They’ve never heard of Updike or Roth, ditto Hemingway. Shakespeare rings a bell, although no one has read a sonnet or seen a play. The students of Literacy Partners, Inc. (LPI), a nonprofit that provides a free adult literacy program serving low-income New Yorkers, are not PEN America’s usual audience.
When they first come to us, some students can’t recite the alphabet. We teach them to write letters—up the hill, over the bridge, down the hill; up the hill, over the bridge, down the hill. Imagine the desperation confronting such hurdles at age 19, 27, 34, 42, 55.
As a volunteer tutor, I try to find contemporary writing that’s both accessible and relevant to my students’ experience. The students—drop-outs mainly, teenagers and twenty- and thirty-somethings—are bright and motivated despite hardscrabble lives. These are our advanced students, maybe even harboring a success story.
One Saturday morning I’m browsing PEN America for reading to go with my coffee. The issue’s theme is “Fear Itself.” I come across “Some Kind of Change” by James Yeh.
The story, a conversation between a man and a woman, takes place in a coffee shop. Fate! (LGQ, my husband predicts: Low Gunplay Quotient.) I read it once, twice, again. (It’s short.) The writing is spare. Yeh evokes strong visual images in swift, deft strokes. His ear for language is pitch-perfect. This Yeh person’s got talent! (Little stab of excitement.) I have a hunch his story may connect with my passel of diploma-deprived adults who, nevertheless, have an uncanny instinct for honest writing—and zero tolerance for a scintilla of phoniness.
This is the drill: Silent reading, followed by reading aloud, taking turns doing the honors. Then the tutor tries to point out the allure of the vignette, how powerful small forms can be, the underlying layers—stuff teachers like to talk about. Nobody’s buying it. It seems they have their own ideas.
“I think the coffee shop is on the lower East Side.” Someone pulls out a wrinkled Edward Hopper print from an old lesson, “Like this?” “He’s dorky and smart. She’s pretty, not smart. But he’d like to hit on her.” “They’ve had an affair.” “No, she’s a tease. She cheated on her boyfriend, but not with him.” “She had a dream she’s a building, give me a break.” “He explained it’s because she’s moving.” “A building is supposed to be a woman’s privates.” “Shut Up!” “He should have ridden with her on the subway. He wanted to.” “No, he doesn’t want to get involved, he knows she’s nasty.” “He’s telling the story, we just have his side.” “He doesn’t take her home because they’re both moving on. The title says the story is about change.”
Tutor interruption: Where does the fear theme come in? “She tells him to be safe. Be safe in life.” “Probably it’s be safe in this neighborhood. He’s walking home. One block is good, the other is empty buildings, lots, and three guys wearing hoodies coming toward him.” “Guys in hoodies are trouble.” “Maybe they’re just cold.” “Since I got mugged and robbed, I see a man in a hoodie sweatshirt, I cross the street.” “He puts his hands in his pockets, puts his head down and walks faster—that’s just how you guys behave.” “But then he starts thinking how beautiful the city is. He’s happy.” “He’s happy he escaped her.” “He’s just another guy who’s afraid to commit.”
Fifteen minutes go by, and no sign of resolution. The conversation is animated. Judging by noise level alone, “Some Kind of Change” has opened up their nerve endings. Settle down, says the tutor. You have five minutes. Write what you think happens next.
No one here is bashful about expressing an opinion, but these students HATE to write. This time, though, they whip out their notebooks and get to it. When they’re asked to share their thoughts, everyone wants to go first.
On a whim I email the class’s handiwork to the author. Secretly, I hope he might email back. Nothing elaborate. Just thanks; I read the students’ work. Unlikely, however. But it would mean a lot to them.
So it makes the last class of summer session a celebration when I report James Yeh has read their pieces. A “real” writer validates them as bona fide students. He emails that writing is about connection. He says Holden Caulfield’s line in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye about liking books written by authors whom you felt you could just call on the phone and be friends with has always stuck with him. Of course, readers intuit that from James’s story. You really ought to read it.
Note: Tomorrow we'll post James Yeh’s story, “Some Kind of Change,” from PEN America 10: Fear Itself.