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You gotta want to learn to read

Thursday, February 19, 2004

(Photo)
READING: Elroy Chinn, 84, meets twice a week with his tutor, Diane Kemmerer, at the Twin Lakes Literacy Council.
Elroy Chinn learns to read at age 84

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate all the contributions African Americans have made to the state of Arkansas and to our communities. The first official record of African-Americans living in Arkansas was in 1721, more than 100 years before statehood. Since that time, through hardships, slavery and civil rights reform, African-Americans have pushed ahead to overcome and to succeed.

Closer to home, 84-year-old Elroy Chinn and his wife recently bought a small farm and moved to northern Arkansas. Chinn shares what it was like growing up black in the South and being denied the very basics of life, food and an education.

From the sun's quick rise of early light until the shadows of the stick grew long, 11-year-old Elroy Chinn worked the fields alongside his stepfather, brother and sister trying to grab all the cotton, all the whiteness his black hands could gather and stuff in a tow sack. The year was 1930, and unlike most young white boys living in this small town 6o miles southwest of Houston, Chinn was not in school.

"In El Campo, Texas, where we were living, they didn't allow no schooling for the black people. See they didn't want you to learn nothing, you'd be over them," said Chinn, who is now 84. "I never wanted to be a dummy but I couldn't read so I didn't know anything to say about it or do about it. Me being a young kid I didn't know anything about prejudice. No one told me. It was just our life. My family couldn't afford to send us away to school. My mama could write her name, but that was all. No one read in our family."

The desire to learn was great, but the gnaw in his belly was greater. Chinn and his family, along with more than 1,600 black tenants and sharecroppers in Wharton County, worked the land for their share of the crop. Chinn and his family lived in a small one-room shotgun house. They had no bed, no mattress, only the floor and their dreams to sleep on. Sometimes they waited days for food and the call of "Negro" boy. It meant the "other man" was coming.

"We were sharecroppers and worked hard, but we worked not for ourselves but the other man. He was the one who fed us, give us our food, what food we got," said Chinn. "Lots of mornings, there was no breakfast or lunch, maybe some days a pot of beans or rice. There was always a maybe."

In 1936, when he was 17 Chinn's grandmother, Henry-etta, and a Greyhound bus would take him away from life as he knew it in the "spit-size" town of El Campo and away from a state that prided itself in being second place for lynching more blacks than any other state. Chinn bought a one-way ticket. It entitled him to ride in the bus 1,512 miles standing up.

"I will never forget that day, Nov. 24, 1936. That was the day I left El Campo, Texas. In those days if you were black you didn't get to sit on the bus anywhere except in the back of the bus and if the bus, got full you had to stand," recalled Chinn. "And I stood a lot."

It was the same journey west many others would take in the 1930s. The wealthy attitudes of the Roaring '20s were all but roared out, replaced with the cries of disbelief, a stock crash. Economic depression had spread over the land in a greatness that caused even the rich to feel a little uneasy about tomorrow. Drought turned topsoil into dust blown away by high winds and stopped only by the hand of a farmer covering his mouth to breathe. Many destitute farmers from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas gave up, packed their bags with nothing but the possibility of their family starting over in California. They had lost their crops to the Dust Bowl and their land to the banks, and like Chinn, they were all seeking refuge from oppression. Such stories would later inspire writers like John Steinbeck to write the great American novel The Grapes of Wrath.

In Los Angeles, Chinn found odd jobs that required more of his young muscles than his mind. He cleaned houses, scrubbed floors, washed clothes and mowed yards. Every penny he made he gave to his grandmother.

"I appreciated her so much and believed in her. She told me I wouldn't have trouble here in Los Angeles like I did in El Campo and she was right."

No one knew he couldn't read or write -- that is until he parked his car in the wrong place. He couldn't read the road sign and a policeman asked Chinn for his driver's licenses. Chinn could only reply, "What's that?"

"I had never seen a driver's license. I went down to the station and paid for the ticket and then the lady gave me some paperwork to fill out and I thought right then and there, maybe I can do this. I took the paper to the desk and sat there and just stared at it. I couldn't read a word. There was this policeman watching me, I guess to see if I was cheating and he came over and asked me if I was having trouble and I said, 'I can't read' So he read the questions and I gave him the answers and he wrote them down for me. He asked me how many taillights did a car have and I said one. 'Are you sure?' he asked, and I said, 'Yes, one.' Back then cars only had one taillight. I made 100 on the exam."

Chinn managed to hide his inability to read or write, but making a living wasn't easy. He got a job swamping for a garbage company in Arizona making $4.50 an hour. He got a 10-cent raise when he took over duties driving the truck and it was only with the help of a friend that Chinn would finally leave behind a life of picking up white man's trash.

"I had a friend who worked at the liquor store and I would always go by and say hello after work. One day he asked me if I wanted a good job. I asked him, 'What's wrong with the job I got?' He said, 'If I give you this letter, take it to a man at AiResearch. This is a job with benefits.' I didn't know what benefits was. Well he wrote the letter and I took it to the company man. He read it right there and asked me, 'When can you go to work?'"

Chinn started the next day at 3 p.m. They took his picture, fingerprinted him and gave him a badge. His number was 736. Chinn worked for this company for 29 years and 11 months heat treating and sandblasting metal parts to build airplanes. He retired in 1981 making $25 an hour, more money than he had ever made in his life. Chinn never found out what the letter said, but he did learn a lesson on the value of having an education.

"I was a great hand at listening. That's the way I learned things, by listening. That's why I never talked much. I wanted to get a better job in the company so the foreman asked me, 'What kind of education you got?' I asked him, 'What was that?' He said, 'You know, your high school diploma.' I told him I had never been to high school. He told me, 'You can't get this job.' It dawned on me later I couldn't read or write, I could barely scribble. After that I didn't apply for any other jobs in the company."

Chinn never tried to go to school, he says, because of his age; he thought he was too old. That was until he met and married his wife, Sharon, in 1999. Last year they moved to northern Arkansas and bought a small five-acre farm. Chinn chops all the wood for the stove to heat the house and gathers some 20 eggs a day from his chickens. It was Sharon's encouragement that finally gave Chinn the nudge to push aside his farm chores, his fear and shame and sign up for reading classes with the Twin Lakes Literacy Council in Mountain Home.

"She told me, 'Elroy you can learn how to read. You can learn how to read. You can learn if you want to. I told her I can't go to school at my age and she said, 'Age ain't got nothing to do with it.' To learn how to read and talk to a person -- that's my desire. That's in my mind all the time, I'd give anything in the world to learn," said Chinn as he opened his second grade book and began to read, "The Smiths are coming to dinner. They are in a car. It is getting dark. To dinner, to dinner. The Smiths are in a hurry."

The Smiths are in a hurry, but Chinn is not. He slowly pronounces the words stretching out the a's and the e's with a long southern drawl that some times leaves his tutor, Diane Kemmerer, a little confused. She repeats them with her clipped northern accent and together they laugh and they learn. Chinn is patient and persistent. He has waited for 84-years to learn how to read, to fulfill a dream denied by El Campo, Texas, a small town where cotton was king and the Ku Klux Klan, 700 strong, ruled the county. It has taken him a lifetime to ask for help and less than one year, meeting twice a week with his tutor, to learn how to read at a second grade level and write his name.

"I've never known anybody like Elroy. He's a wonderful, wonderful man. He tries so hard. I give him homework and he does twice as much as I ask," said Diane, who is a retired schoolteacher from Iowa. "I look at him and think about the waste. He's such a smart man. It's so sad that he couldn't learn like the rest of us who learned as small children. This man knows how important it is to read. I also volunteer at Guy Berry Elementary School and I want to take Chinn to school with me and show him to the little kids in class."

That invitation to step inside a public school is 79 years overdue, but one that Chinn would accept. Here in northern Arkansas, the wrongs of prejudices past are made a little more right if only for an hour or so a week when Chinn meets with his tutor. Reading knows no boundaries at the Twin Lakes Literacy Council, no black or white, just words and sentences and stories, lots of stories.

"It makes you cry inside and out because what happened to him was not fair," said Sharon. "As Americans, regardless of our skin color or who we are, we should all have the same opportunity. Even though he didn't get to go to school, he did his 100 percent best he could whatever was facing him, so therefore his life is not a waste."

Reading has opened Chinn's eyes and mouth. His wife refuses to let him drive since he pays more attention to reading the signs than staying on the road. The once shy and silent, soft-spoken man now loves to carry on a conversation with anyone who will listen.

"Since I started learning how to read," said Chinn with a chuckle as he patted his wife's knee, "I'm beginning to talk more."

"You can't shut him up now," said Sharon with a big smile. "With reading comes more knowledge, the ability to articulate and put sentences together, and I just love it."

Chinn has graduated to the third grade reader. He will turn 85 on March 17 and prays the Lord will spare his life for a few more years so he can read the Bible from cover to cover and actually read the prayer he memorized as a child, "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He leadeth me on."

"I figure if I can read the Bible, I've done it," said Chinn, who is recovering from pneumonia. "If you can't read, then what's going to happen to you? You don't know nothing and, who knows, maybe if I had learn to read as a child, if they would have let me go to school, well maybe, like you said, I could have been president."

Help is available in tri counties

In Fulton, Izard, Sharp and Baxter counties, one out of every five adults you meet in a store, at church or at a ballgame can't read above a fourth grade reading level. That means they can't read a road sign, can't read the songs in the songbook, can't read a book to their child or fill out a job application. Statistics show that 19 percent of Arkansans never graduated from high school and 14 percent never finished 9th grade. More than 40 percent live in poverty and 17 percent depend on food stamps.

Free services and one-on-one tutoring are available to adults to help them learn how to read or improve their reading and math skills. The Sharp County Literacy Council, located in Highland, offers 15 professionally trained tutors who volunteer their time and expertise.

"Our biggest challenge is getting the adults to call for help. For whatever reason, they don't come forward and ask for our services. Maybe it's because they're ashamed or afraid. There is a stigma attached that shouldn't be that if you come for help you're showing weakness," said Marilyn Bischoff, president and director. "Our staff is trained and eager to help. I want to emphasize are services are free and confidential. Please call us."

Last year, the state of Arkansas honored The Sharp County Literacy Council with an award of excellence for their services. The Sharp County Literacy Council is one of only two in the state that is operated by volunteers. There is no paid staff and they rely on donations and grants to provide services. The Twin Lakes Literacy Council is located in Mountain Home and has a branch office in Clarkridge. Last year its 80 volunteers helped more than 227 students in the Baxter County area. Volunteers provided tutoring in everything from reading to math. It, too, relies on donations and grants to keep the doors open and help those who can't read.

"Elroy is truly an example. It's never too late to learn how to read," says Nancy Tester, coordinator of the Twin Lakes Literacy Council. "I want others to know help is always available. They don't realize how much they've got going for them. People with low literacy skills have developed other skills that will help them learn quicker. They have great visual and auditory skills, because they've had to watch and listen with greater detail than those who know how to read."

Volunteers at both the Twin Lakes Literacy Council and the Sharp County Literacy Council are trained to teach English as a second language to foreign students and help students earn their GED.

Sharp County Literacy Council can be reached at 856-3038, and the Twin Lakes Literacy Council at 425-READ (425-7323). All services are free and confidential.



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