Ernesto Portillo Jr.: Woman free from chains of illiteracy at age of 48

2008-06-22T00:00:00Z Ernesto Portillo Jr.: Woman free from chains of illiteracy at age of 48By Ernesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Linda Payne's passion is teaching Sunday Bible classes. But up until the past several months, her teaching was limited, suppressing her joy.

She could not read. She could not spell.

Now Payne's passion has been unleashed, bringing her happiness and pride.

Payne, 48, can read Scripture to the children of her church and write her Sunday school lesson plans.

Her chains of illiteracy have been broken. Payne is free.

"When you can't read, it's like being in bondage," said Payne.

Learning to read has opened up possibilities and activities for Payne that were previously closed to her. She can read a menu, a letter and street signs.

She can also help her supportive husband more, the pastor of their church, Crossroads Christian Center.

More important, Payne can read books to her grandchildren. It wasn't long ago Payne couldn't spell the word grandmother.

"I enjoy life better. I can do more," Payne said.

But Payne did not take her successful journey alone.

Diane Musser, a volunteer with Literacy Volunteers of Tucson, has journeyed alongside Payne since the two first met last November.

Two strangers from different sides of town, from different backgrounds brought together through reading and a desire — to learn and to teach.

"We try to keep each other going," said Musser, 64.

I met the pair at the Eckstrom-Columbus Library during one of their lessons. They usually meet at a North Oracle Road bookstore — about halfway between their homes. Payne lives near the Columbus library and Musser lives in SaddleBrooke, near the northern edge of the county. They try to meet three days a week, five hours each session, more than the requirement for the literacy volunteers.

Musser was not Payne's first reading tutor. But Musser, in her first foray as a literacy volunteer, made reading possible for Payne.

Payne grew up in Yuma. Her parents had little education and were unaware that their daughter was passed grade to grade not knowing how to read.

In the fifth grade, however, the school placed Payne in a special-education class. Clearly she had a learning disability but no one bothered to find out exactly what.

She entered adulthood lost, believing it was her fault she could not read. A mother of four children, Payne struggled to make sense of the undecipherable letters.

She used memory. She asked for explanations. She made sure her four children graduated from high school. Two have college degrees, a third has attended college and the fourth is a musician who can read music.

A turning point for Payne came 12 years ago. She was diagnosed as dyslexic and a new world began to spell out to her.

Musser, who went to San Manuel High School, had previously done volunteer work with adults studying for their high school equivalency diploma or GED. After retiring as a dental hygienist, she to turned to literacy. Through her work she came to know adults who could not read.

Musser said she tried to put herself in their shoes. Being illiterate and the challenges it posed, she said it was impossible to imagine.

She went through training and then she met Payne. There was instant chemistry between the two.

"We locked in on each other," she said.

Payne said they built a mutual respect and trust between each other. That was key to her learning, she said.

In addition to trust and respect, Musser said her key to good teaching is being a good listener.

Beyond learning to read, Payne's goal is to take and pass the GED exam. Musser said there is no end date to their work.

But the relationship has gone beyond student-teacher, they said.

They've become friends.

Musser has met several of Payne's children and grandchildren. Payne said she can call Musser anytime.

"That's a friend," said Payne.

To help

Literacy Volunteers of Tucson trains reading tutors who give three to six hours a week for at least one year. This year 255 tutors have provided more than 21,000 instructional hours to 850 adult students.

Those interested in volunteering should call 882-8006 to register for orientation sessions on Tuesday, July 1, at 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. or Saturday, July 12 at 10:30 a.m. to noon. at its offices, 1948 E Allen Road.

By the numbers

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2003 found 11 million adults, people over the age of 16, are illiterate in English. Of those 11 million, 7 million could not answer simple test questions and 4 million could not take the test because of language barriers.

● Reporter Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. has deep roots here. His maternal grandparents came to Tucson in 1931. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Argentine-born Onofre Navarro, lived in Tucson beginning in the 1860s. Portillo can be contacted at 807-8414 or eportillo@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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