By Deborah Wright Yoho
What goes through your mind, Gentle Reader, when I tell you that I teach adults to read? How can an adult not know how to read in this day and age, in this country? Oh, maybe she works with retards, or welfare mothers, or rednecks?
I became the director of a non-profit adult literacy program in 1994, after I left my job as the principal of a rural South Carolina high school - straight from three years of dealing with kids who lived on dirt roads and showed up in August barefoot or with lice. One student asked permission for dismissal at noon so he could pick cotton to earn a few dollars for his family. Another forgot to leave his loaded shotgun at home. He parked his truck, unlocked, on school grounds with the evil thing still mounted on a gun rack behind the front seat.
So when I accepted the job as an adult educator, I thought the guy at the “fillin’ station” on The Andy Griffith Show, Goober, probably represented the typical adult who struggles with reading. That is, until I met James Lazarus.
I had been on the job a week when a newspaper reporter with The State called me asking to interview an “adult illiterate” for a feature story about the United Way campaign. “Sure!" I answered, eager to grab the media spotlight. "I have someone here right now. If you have a close deadline, you can come right over."
"I'll be right there," Bill McDonald said, delighted to get this chore out of the way. I gave him directions and waited impatiently for him to arrive.
It never occurred to me to ask the adult learner and his tutor if they wanted to be interviewed. When Bill arrived, I escorted him to the classroom and introduced him. I also had to introduce myself. I had never met either James Lazarus or the lovely elderly lady who volunteered to tutor him. Luckily, James didn't care about my presumption or my rudeness.
Bill posed his first question. "Tell me, Mr. Lazarus, what do you do for a living?"
"Huh?" asked James.
With immense dignity, this quiet middle-aged man stated, "Oh, I'm a pastor."
"A pastor?!" Bill's jaw dropped only slightly lower than mine.
"Yes, I have a congregation of about 300 souls just outside of town. Preaching is my profession. But I also work for the county painting playground equipment."
"What does your church think about their pastor not being able to read?"
"Well," said James. "They don't know." There was a pregnant pause as James drew a breath and then grinned. "But I guess they are about to find out!"
James Lazarus understood his secret was about to be divulged to the whole world while Bill and I never considered that he may not have wanted his face plastered six inches high on page one of the Metro section. But that is how his congregation found out their pastor couldn't read.
As for me, I learned something about stereotypes, dignity, patience, consideration for others, and plain good manners from a gentleman. To this day, I am very proud to call James Lazarus my friend.