Many reporters use both public and private documents when researching and writing stories. Public documents are available through the Freedom of Information Act, or simply by asking for them. Private documents are often available only from the person to whom they belong.
In this section, we’ll learn more about how to use documents in your stories.
Read the story by Louise Kiernan of the Chicago Tribune about one man’s efforts to learn to read. Identify three instances on which Kiernan refers to information from private documents.
If not already clear, try to identify the document source of the information.
A will to read
Calvin Cottrell’s dogged pursuit of words and a lost education
One man’s journey to literacy
By Louise Kiernan
Tribune staff reporter
March 17, 2002
Words fall from Calvin Cottrell’s mouth like stones, hard, flat and blank.
Each one is separate from the next, a dry riverbed of language that rattles in the stillness of the church sanctuary where he sits.
“Women,” he says.
From electric chandeliers hanging high above the sanctuary’s rough stone walls, light spills onto his head, which is bent over a wooden table. A trash can propped on a nearby pew catches melting snow that drips from a leak in the roof.
“Were,” he says.
He reads from a book, tracing each word with a fingertip as big and rosy as a grape. He is a large man, more than 300 pounds, and his size lends him an air of command, of calm. Only the hard, steady chomp of his jaw, pounding a piece of gum, betrays the effort each syllable costs him.
The page, already dog-eared and wrinkled, is stained with food and flecked with pencil marks.
Every so often, he stops to push back the glasses slipping down his nose. The lenses, like his face, are broad and thick. On the same side of the table sits a younger man, with unruly, dark blond hair. He occasionally shifts in his seat, restless in the long gaps of silence, but his eyes remain fixed upon the page.
“To,” Calvin says.
Tonight, it takes Calvin more than 30 minutes to make his way through a page and a half of text, stopping and starting, sounding out some words and guessing at others, prompted, at times, by the man at his side.
He reads “set” as “seat” and stumbles over “surprise,” but calls out “merchandise” without a pause.
The halting monotone of his voice, deep and clotted, does not convey that he is reading from the opening chapter of a romance novel by Danielle Steel. That he has just read the sentence, “Women were just drawn to him like bees to honey.”
At 63, Calvin Cottrell is learning how to read and write. He pursues words the same way he once moved down the rows of cotton in the fields of eastern Arkansas, slow and determined, a slight boy dwarfed by the burlap sack slung across his shoulder.
Cotton cost him his education. He left school before he was 10 years old and he left Arkansas at 21, with little more in his pocket than a $12 train ticket to Chicago and the love of a woman whose broad smile lit him up, he says, like a flashlight.
Like millions of African-Americans who moved North during the Great Migration, he fashioned a successful life out of the little he had. Worked in a factory. Bought a house. Raised three children.
He navigated his world without the simplest of tools, just as thousands of others did, without the help of a street sign, a map or a menu.
Now, with faltering eyes and ears and a body made weak by a stroke, Calvin Cottrell has set out to win back the education he was denied by discrimination and the harsh demands of his life.
The practical incentives for his quest have mostly evaporated. There is no need for a high school diploma in Calvin’s life anymore, no reason for him to fill out a job application. He just wants to read.
More than anything else, he wants to read the Bible. He wants to read along with the preacher when he calls out a passage from the Scripture. He wants, someday, to get up and read the Scripture himself.
On this night, in January 2001, he stops, stumped, by the word “admit.” He taps a pencil against his ear.
“You know, some words pop in your head and out,” he says to Aaron Nelson, the 31-year-old man sitting next to him, his tutor in the adult learning program he attends in Hyde Park. “This one keeps going out.”
Each sentence he sounds out is punctuated by the strains of the community jazz group that practices across the hall. Sometimes, the band’s music soars. Sometimes, it drags and stumbles. But every Tuesday, the musicians come and play.
Music still hovers in the air when Aaron and Calvin finish reading for the night.
“Do you want to put a little bookmark?” Aaron asks.
Calvin doesn’t answer, but he picks up his pencil and grips it in his fist.
Carefully, as if he were marking the key to a much-worn map of buried treasure, he makes a small X in the margin of the page and shuts the book.
The only school that Calvin Cottrell attended sat in the shadow of two cotton gins. Like almost everything else in the small town of Palestine, Ark., it operated according to the rhythms of the crop that blanketed the fields like a scruffy quilt of snow.
Spring was for planting the cotton. Summer was for “chopping” — or weeding and thinning — the cotton. And autumn was for picking it. Winter and whatever time there was left between planting, chopping and picking was for school.
The black children in Palestine went to what everyone called the “colored school,” a white-frame schoolhouse for students up to the 8th grade. The children were divided into two rooms heated by a pair of stoves fueled with wood from the pile out back.
The white schools in rural Arkansas in the 1940s didn’t have much, but those that served black children had even less. The teachers made lower salaries and the state spent less money on their students. The books were mostly hand-me-downs, often missing their backs, fronts and occasional pages in between.
The white children in Palestine took a bus to their grade school. The black children rode in a flatbed truck, sheltered by a tarp flung over a wooden frame.
In all, black children in St. Francis County went to school about six months each year, but many, like Calvin, attended far less than that.
Most days, he worked, helping farm the cotton, corn, sweet potatoes and soybeans his family raised on a patchwork of land along what was known as Old River Road.
The third of 13 children, Calvin was 6 years old the first time he plowed a field. He took his father some water and asked for a turn behind the mule. His father watched him for a minute or two. Then, Calvin remembers, he pushed back his hat and walked off, leaving his son to finish the job.
Within a year, Calvin was helping pick the cotton, learning how to avoid cutting his fingers on the prickly bolls, challenging his brothers and sisters to see who could pick the most.
School didn’t matter much to his father. Lonnie Cottrell couldn’t read or write much himself.
“We went to school when it rained,” Calvin says, “and it had to rain mighty hard at that.”
The less Calvin went to school, the less he wanted to go. He was ashamed that he had fallen so far behind and had to sit with the younger children while his classmates had moved up.
His teacher, Sarah Taylor, wielded her authority and her paddle with a confident smile, but she struggled too. She had begun teaching even before she was out of high school and pursued her college degree during the months her students worked the cotton.
As someone who had plowed fields herself as a child, she sympathized with the students whose parents had to put them to work. But she had more than 40 children from kindergarten to 4th grade on her hands.
She focused her efforts on those she thought had a chance of making it to high school. Most of them, she knew, wouldn’t reach the 8th grade. The Cottrells were a talkative, lively bunch, but they didn’t come very often.
She is 82 years old now, a frail woman with milky eyes and two wispy gray braids clipped to her scalp.
“The survivors survived,” she says. “We just had to do the best we could. A lot of times, it was just impossible.”
Calvin’s formal education concluded sometime around the age of 9. He knew the alphabet. He could do a little addition and subtraction. He couldn’t read or write much more than his name.
Leaving school didn’t make him particularly angry or sad. Life on the farm, despite the hard work, was sweet, with trees to climb and fish to catch.
If he thought about education at all, it was with the same vague wonder that he felt one night when he was out hunting in the woods and turned around to see his family’s home lit by electricity for the first time.
More than 50 years later, on Oct. 18, 1999, Calvin Cottrell walked into the adult learning program at the Blue Gargoyle Youth Service Center on the campus of the University of Chicago.
At the age of 62, his reading skills were so minimal that his score on the placement test, when translated into a grade level, was 0.0. It was as if he had never been to school at all.
On the test, he couldn’t identify a picture of a hot-water tap (he picked out one with the letter “C”) or a help-wanted sign (he chose one that said “Do Not Enter”).
But he managed to write one sentence to explain why he was there, seven words into which he compressed a lifetime of frustration and desire.
The checks he couldn’t write. The doctor’s instructions he couldn’t understand. The forms he couldn’t read in the factory where he worked for 28 years. The maps he couldn’t use to find his way around as a truck driver after that.
The stroke that brought an end to his life as a working man and confined him to the house where he had too little to do.
All the unread books and unwritten letters and a whole universe of possibilities so wavering and distant they seemed as indecipherable as words themselves.
Printing in a clumsy line with a pencil he could barely hold in his stroke-weakened hand, Calvin wrote on the application why he had come:
“i Need to LuRN How To Red.”
II. Life of the mind
One hand leaning on his cane, the other gripping a handrail, Calvin pulls himself up the staircase, his book bag swinging from his arm.
He climbs slowly, planting both feet on each step.
Below him, on the ground floor, is the sanctuary of the church that rents the Blue Gargoyle its warren of drafty rooms and dim hallways.
For the first decade after the Blue Gargoyle opened its adult learning program in 1986, most of its students were people like Calvin, older African-Americans who had moved to Chicago from the South.
When these students met, they conducted a ritual of sorts, trying to figure out if they knew each other, either from the Mississippi Delta or the Chicago neighborhoods where they had settled. And, most of the time, they did.
Virtually every literacy program on the city’s West and South Sides saw its share of meatpackers and welders, grandmothers and great-aunts who never got the education they should have and wanted to make up for it. Calvin learned about the Blue Gargoyle from his next-door neighbor, a butcher who grew up on a Mississippi plantation, where his only schooling came from an occasional lesson at church.
These days, the majority of the Blue Gargoyle’s students are young adults who left school because they got pregnant, got into trouble or had learning disabilities that never got addressed. People like Calvin are starting to die off.
Calvin stops for a moment or two on the landing to catch his breath, then mounts the final 17 stairs to the third floor, where his class meets four nights a week.
As usual, he is the first person to arrive.
This class is for beginning readers. Some students start out knowing so little about written language that they have to learn to read a word from left to right. Calvin walked in with a smattering of knowledge he had picked up over the years.
He knew what vowels were. He could write out the words for some numbers. Unlike most adult learners, he could write a little better than he could read and, with some time, produce his signature in a ragged script.
Still, when his teacher met him, she saw nothing but the hard work that lay ahead.
Pages flew from his fumbling fingertips. Pencils dropped from his grasp. He chewed gum so hard that everyone in class could hear it.
He never seemed to be in the right place. Other students sat, waiting, stiff smiles pasted on their faces while Calvin tried to find his way.
He was so used to guessing at words that his eyes skipped right over what was on the page. He reviewed passages with his family’s help until he could recite them as if he were reading. To learn how to read, he needed to unlearn the ways he compensated.
No one knows exactly what happens in the brain when people read, but researchers have come to believe there are two separate processes at work.
One mechanism recognizes a word from a pattern of letters and connects it with a mental lexicon, or dictionary, of meaning. The other converts letters into the individual sounds that make up language.
People use both systems when they read, but one mechanism may be more useful in a given situation. For example, it helps to sound out letters when learning a new word, but to read quickly, someone must be able to recognize entire words and phrases at a glance.
For older adults like Calvin, the reading process can be complicated by age-related factors, like poor vision and short-term memory loss. And, while researchers no longer believe the brain loses all its plasticity, or ability to adapt, with age, there is no question that it is harder for adults to acquire new skills than it is for children.
Calvin seemed propelled by sheer will. When he was offered a tutor to work individually with him, he asked for two. He met with Aaron Nelson on Tuesday nights and with his other tutor, Cheryl Hiipakka, on Mondays. Then, he requested a third tutor, to help him with math, and kept asking until Hiipakka eventually agreed to do that as well. Some days he spent as much as four hours in class and in tutoring sessions.
Night after night, in class, the teacher led Calvin and the other students through lists of words grouped by sound. She had them read aloud, and she read to them. They made up sentences with vocabulary words.
Eventually, some of the lessons began to stick. Calvin’s ability to understand words slowly improved until he was almost working at 1st-grade level. With his teacher’s help, he wrote his first story, dictating the words to her, then copying them from the sheet she had written out for him.
“I was born in the country on a farm in Forrest City Aransas,” it began, “we had fun picking cotton . . .”
His teacher, Marcia Guthridge, began to entertain modest hopes for Calvin. Maybe, one day, he will keep a book on his bedside table, she thought. Maybe he will write a letter to a grandchild at
What Calvin found in her classroom, she realized, had nothing to do with passing tests or earning degrees. He was learning how to belong in a world of words. He was, as she liked to say, “leading the life of the mind.”
After a year, Calvin and another older man were the only two students who remained from his original class. The others had moved on or dropped out. New faces took their places.
The teacher changed too, to Marsha Blunt, whom Calvin sometimes referred to as “black Marsha” to distinguish her from Guthridge.
After a fire forced his family out of their house, Calvin dropped out of school for several weeks. A series of snowstorms kept him at home because he couldn’t navigate the icy sidewalks with his cane. Each time he left, he lost ground. But he always came back.
Blunt worried that Calvin would fall so far behind she would lose him altogether. One day, she had to take aside another student and tell her to stop sighing at the slow pace of his reading.
But, like the teacher before her, she began to see flashes of promise. His wit amused her.
“Mr. Calvin,” she asked one night, referring to a newspaper article the class was reading aloud, “do you know the word, `compromised?’ ”
“My father comes to mind,” he answered. “Many times he was getting ready to whup me and I compromised.”
When he connected with what she asked him to read, she could almost see him glow. He couldn’t stop talking about the story of a mule that climbed out of a hole. For months afterward, he carried the sheet of paper in his book bag.
He may struggle, Blunt told herself, but he has more tenacity and desire to learn than anyone in this building.
As she walks into the classroom tonight, a tall, thin woman in a gray suit, Calvin is waiting, seated alone at one end of a chipped red table.
After the four other students get settled, they begin to read aloud from August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” each person taking a part in the play.
At one point, Blunt turns to Calvin, who is riffling through his copy. “Calvin,” she says gently, “we’re back to you again.”
“I’m trying to get the right page,” Calvin answers, still thumbing the paper.
She waits a moment, then stands next to him.
“Page 14,” she says, and watches as he runs his finger down the page to find his line.
“Berniece,” he begins, reading his character’s name as if it were part of the dialogue.
“Just standing there,” he reads, “with the blue . . .
“Sturdy?” he finally hazards.
“Suit,” Blunt answers. “Read the sentence again.”
He does and stops again at “suit.”
This is almost always how Calvin tackles words. He fumbles, he guesses. He catches them, only to lose them again if he lets his vigilance slip.
“Suit,” he says.
He says the word as if he is surprised he has grabbed it, a fly banging and buzzing in his fist, sure to escape if he loosens his grip.
Calvin had wanted to begin in the beginning, with Genesis.
He talked about reading the Bible the day he walked into the Blue Gargoyle. The program director, who interviewed him that day, wrote down what he said.
“It means a lot to me to come back to school, so that I learn how to read the Bible,” he told her.
“You carry around a Bible, and someone asks, ‘Look up such-and-such a verse and tell me what it says.’
“You feel like a dummy. I can tell you what it means but I can’t read it.”
So, during his early tutoring sessions with Aaron, they took a stab at it. But the arcane language proved too difficult and they abandoned the effort after a few sessions.
As time passed, Calvin gained enough control over his pencil to make letters that looked almost neat and uniform. He won the class quiz for Black History Month. But he hadn’t conquered the Bible.
Now, almost a year and a half after he started the adult learning program, he wants to try again.
He sits with Aaron in an auditorium at the Blue Gargoyle, a dim, high-ceilinged room with folding chairs stacked against the walls and an empty, unlit stage that looms over his shoulder.
The subject comes up casually, in a series of roundabout remarks about how he ran into someone from the program and how she asked him if he still wanted to read the Bible and how he said he might have to ask his tutor.
Then, he gets to the point.
“Maybe one day if the pastor don’t show up, one of the deacons might have to stand up and bring the word to the people,” he says, looking away from Aaron.
“It just might be just my day to do it and I want to be equipped for it. I want to be prepared for it.”
Aaron worries they may fail again, but he agrees.
“We could take a chapter or portion and we could go over it and you could read and be comfortable reading that,” he suggests. “And when your day comes you know you can get up and do that.”
“That’d be nice,” Calvin agrees.
As Aaron turns his attention to the book on the table, Calvin abruptly speaks again.
“You know if I get up there to the pulpit, I don’t want to get up there for two minutes and sit down,” he says.
“I want to be up there a little while, you know. Read a bit.”
III. Words from my heart
For a moment, Aaron holds the words in the air. They hang in the bright light of his pottery studio, floating on a piece of clear adhesive paper as thin and fragile as tissue.
Working quickly, he drapes the paper onto a porcelain plate and smooths it into place. Later, he will fire the plate in his kiln and the paper will burn away. Only the words will remain, scorched
The plate is for Calvin and his wife. Aaron, a ceramics artist, asked Calvin to write her a letter that he could transfer to a piece of pottery.
Calvin sat down at his dining room table with his two oldest granddaughters and without letting them see what he was writing, asked for help spelling the words he didn’t know.
The white plate that sits on Aaron’s worktable is austere compared with his other work, much of which is glazed in vibrant colors and sells in art galleries at prices that top $400 for a set of dishware. He looks at it with pride.
“This will last 30,000 years,” he says. “So even when it’s smashed, people will find it.”
Aaron had never tutored anyone before Calvin. He couldn’t explain exactly what made him sign up for the program at the Blue Gargoyle N just that an advertisement asking for volunteers caught his eye, that the program was near his Hyde Park apartment, that his mother had always thought he would make a good teacher.
The first time Aaron met Calvin for tutoring, he was so nervous he brought along a cheat sheet. It contained a phrase from his training session about the empowerment of reading, some snippet about phonics, a tip to keep a journal.
That night, they talked about the journal. It became a way they asked each other questions they hesitated to say aloud:
Calvin . . . could you tell me why you decided to take classes in reading and writing?
Because I wont to do things for myself I feel Better about my self
If am not ben to nosey aron why did you com to Chicago do like it better
Calvin, I came to Chicago with my fiance Sabine. We came here because Sabine is going to school at the U. of C.
Sometimes, what they wrote wasn’t questions and answers at all:
Calvin, your reading is wonderful!
Aron I am glas you decided to be my tutor I dont now what I would have don withdoubt you.
They bridged the gulf between them in the occasional joke or foray outside the classroom. Calvin and his wife, Joyce, came to an opening party at Aaron’s studio. Aaron took Calvin out to eat at an Italian restaurant but chastised himself when Calvin seemed uncomfortable with the menu, which was almost as thick as a magazine.
One night, Aaron asked if he could take a photograph of Calvin to show his mother.
“In Canada, where you’re from, they got black people there?” Calvin asked him.
“Not many, no,” Aaron answered.
“Your mom might look at this photo and say, `What the hell is that?’ ”
They both laughed.
At times, Aaron thinks about giving up tutoring. He has pottery classes to teach and orders to fill, but he can’t quit on Calvin.
He asks himself what he could do that would be as challenging as the task Calvin has set for himself. He never comes up with an answer.
Aaron stands in his studio and looks at the plate.
He wonders how long the words waited in Calvin’s heart, waiting for him to learn how to write them.
To my wife she has been best thing happein in my life you have proven comittment through my ups and downs. During the time I had a strock you really stood by me words not from my mouth but from my heart I know you are the woman of my desire. If I can prove half as much to you as you have proven to me our life will be perfect.
She ducked whenever she saw his truck coming down the road. Crouched down between the cotton plants so Calvin couldn’t see her working in the field.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t know that she lived on a farm or that he hadn’t picked cotton himself. It was just a matter of pride.
Calvin first saw 16-year-old Joyce Ann Brown walking down the main street in Forrest City, the county seat, one Saturday morning. She had big brown eyes and a gold tooth that made her smile catch his eye from a block away.
Before what should have been their first date, Calvin’s truck broke down and he didn’t have a telephone to call her to tell her he was stuck. But it wasn’t long before they were courting in earnest and Joyce was ducking down in the cotton field whenever Calvin drove by.
They both took a bus to the black high school in Forrest City. She graduated. He never saw the inside of the building. He just caught the occasional ride so he could meet girls.
The inequality in their education never bothered them. It was just the way it was. Girls weren’t pulled out of school as often to help with the farm work.
Segregation was another fact of life. In Forrest City, the drive-in theater confined blacks to the last two rows. The local newspaper listed births by white and non-white.
But as more and more African-Americans moved from the rural South to Chicago, Detroit, New York and other urban areas in the North, stories of a better life to be had there filtered back into the community. From 1950 to 1960, more than 7,200 blacks in St. Francis County–the equivalent of 34 percent of its African-American population in 1950 – would leave.
The “colored news” columns in the Forrest City Daily Times-Herald were filled with items like the one that reported “Elbert Smith and Waverly Weaver have gone to New York to work.” Calvin’s family passed around postcards and stories from a cousin who had moved to Chicago. Joyce had a sister who urged her to come to California.
She chose Chicago instead because that’s where Calvin told her he wanted to go. She went first so he couldn’t leave her behind.
Two weeks later, on the second Saturday in September, Calvin and his father drove to the feed store to pick up cotton sacks for the coming harvest.
You won’t need to buy a sack for me, he told his father. I’m leaving.
That afternoon, he said his goodbyes, walked the 3 miles to Palestine, got a ride to Forrest City and waited for the train. He was 21 and had never traveled farther than Memphis, some 45 miles to the east.
On the way north, a white woman sat down next to him and he held his breath. No one told him to move.
He felt as though he had already entered a new world.
Calvin arrived in Chicago through the crowded and chaotic confines of the Illinois Central Station on 12th Street, greeted by a city that looked nothing like the pristine skyline of his cousin’s postcards.
The Southern blacks who came during the late 1950s, as Calvin did, were usually poorer and less educated than those who had moved earlier. For them, as one historian noted, the city wasn’t where the journey ended, but where it began.
Calvin stayed with his cousin in Bronzeville, the heart of Chicago’s African-American community, in an apartment with a potbelly stove in the living room. Joyce fared a little better with her relatives. For the first time, she slept in a room where she wasn’t chilled by wind coming through cracks in the walls.
Joyce and Calvin got married about six months after they arrived in Chicago and had their oldest daughter, Cynthia, on their first anniversary. By the time their second child, Cassandra, arrived
three years later, they had moved to an apartment on the West Side, where they lived among other transplants from the South.
Together, these families functioned as a social and economic force that would reshape the city around them.
The Cottrells lived a dozen blocks away from Martin Luther King Jr. when he moved to Chicago for a time in 1966. Two years later, they watched from their front window as their neighborhood erupted in riots after his assassination and they stood fast as the area continued to disintegrate around them afterward.
Calvin worked in a spring factory, Joyce in the steel mills. They had their third child, a son named for his father. When they could afford to move, they escaped the West Side for a splitlevel in West Pullman, a working-class neighborhood on the city’s southern border that was shifting from white to black.
Like many of their friends and neighbors, they harvested the bitter and the sweet from the journey north. Their oldest daughter got tangled up in drugs and they ended up raising six of her children. Their son started to head down the wrong path, but they saved him by sending him back to relatives in Arkansas, where he finished high school.
The rural life that helped rob Calvin of an education allowed his son to gain one. In Marianna, Ark., there wasn’t much to do except go to school, Calvin Jr. jokes.
All three children graduated from high school and Cassandra and Calvin Jr. went on to college.
Calvin was proud of that. He might not have much of an education, but he made sure his children did.
His children, in turn, hungered for more for their own offspring.
“My dad would always be saying to go to school,” Cassandra says one night, as she sits in her parents’ home, drilling her 12-year-old daughter in multiplication tables. Her oldest daughter, Monica, is the first in the family to go away to college.
“His point was high school because he never done it. As far as my kids, I preach college because I didn’t finish,” she says. “As a family, we’re going higher and higher.”
IV. Tree of knowledge
On the table in front of Calvin sits a green canvas bag bulging with books and papers, like some jumbled scrapbook of his education.
This satchel used to be his youngest granddaughter’s diaper bag and Calvin, who had little occasion to carry more than his money and his lunch before he started school, saw no reason not to put it to use.
In it, there are three spiral notebooks he uses for his assignments and the questions he exchanges with his two tutors. Some pages have nothing more than a word or two scrawled on them – “Anturtica, Asia” reads one–and others are so heavily erased and written over they are almost worn through.
There are seven loose pages from “The Piano Lesson.” A vocabulary list from 11 months earlier, which includes the words “snap,” “sneak” and “sneeze.” The sheet with the story of the mule on it. The copy of Danielle Steel’s “Special Delivery,” which he borrowed from his granddaughter Monica. A paperback, “The Best of Simple” by Langston Hughes, a gift from one of his tutors. Several handfuls of pens and pencils and a small packet of tissues.
“Scrambled up like eggs,” Calvin sometimes says, ruefully, as he contemplates the chaos.
Tonight, a week after he announced he wants to read the Scripture, he pulls from this clutter a worn Bible with a black vinyl cover.
Calvin, who is wearing a black baseball cap emblazoned with “Jesus is Love,” begins paging through at random.
“I’m looking for the word ‘men,’ ” he says.
In his indirect way, Calvin lets Aaron know that the last Sunday in June is Men’s Day at his church, when, he says, the men get up and talk and the women sit back and listen. He wants to read aloud from his Bible.
“Adam was the first man,” Aaron says. “Think that might fit with the theme?”
They begin in Genesis, with the creation of man.
“. . . and the tree of working . . .,” Calvin reads.
“. . . of knowing,” he corrects himself.
“. . . edging,” he tries.
“Knowledge,” Aaron prompts.
“Knowledge. Of good and evil.”
As he continues, obsolete and unusual words catch on his tongue like burrs. Bdellium. Onyx. Ethiopia. Euphrates.
“That one there,” Calvin says, pointing his finger, “is the name of the garden.”
“Eden,” Aaron offers.
“Eden,” Calvin repeats.
They stop a few minutes later.
“You know what,” Calvin says, “this is something I always did want to do. Read the Bible.”
“Yeah, well you’re doing it.”
“No, I’m still stumbling,” he says, shaking his head. “I want to be able to read the Bible.”
When a man can’t read, he has to figure out a way to get by. He has to have what Calvin calls motherwit.
Motherwit is never using words unless you know what they mean. Motherwit is keeping your mouth shut during meetings. Motherwit is saying that you forgot your glasses so you’ll have to come back to the doctor’s office another time to finish that paperwork. Motherwit is asking someone to repeat the directions he just wrote down.
Motherwit got Calvin his first job in Chicago.
When he walked through the door of Acorn Cushion Spring Co. in Bridgeport and was handed an application, he asked if he could take it home. That night, a friend helped him fill it out. The next day, he was on the assembly line.
If you were steady and strong and did your job well, no one asked you too many questions about your education. Only once, he remembers, did anyone inquire. A secretary, filling out some kind of form, asked him if he was a high school graduate.
No, he answered. I’m not even a grade school graduate.
For almost a year he attended night school, but his job ate up too much of his time and he dropped out.
He picked up enough education that he could sweat out a short sentence or two. But what he remembered most about the experience was that the teacher told him he couldn’t pronounce his own name.
COT-trell, he said.
No, she said, it’s Cot-TRELL.
He decided she probably knew better than he did. From then on, he was Calvin Cot-TRELL, even when he went back to Arkansas to visit.
He stayed at the spring factory until it shut down in 1986. Sometimes he heard about other jobs but he was too embarrassed about his lack of education to apply. So, he held on to his job until it
wasn’t there anymore.
After that, Calvin, along with several of his former co-workers, went to work for Marina Cartage, a local trucking firm. He knew the owners because they lived across the street from the factory.
Calvin had driven trucks before. As a young man in Arkansas, he hauled cattle to sale lots. Once, he had driven all the way from Chicago to California for a vacation with his family. But this job required a little more motherwit than he had needed before.
He got his commercial driver’s license the same way he had obtained his original driver’s license. With his wife’s help, he studied a copy of the test until he could recognize and answer the multiple-choice questions.
To do his job, he created a mental map of Chicago, learning the landmarks at every intersection, memorizing which streets ran north and south and which ran east and west. Mention a corner and he could tell you what was there. At 45th and Halsted? A gas station and a restaurant, although Calvin couldn’t tell you the sign said the “Stock Yards Truck Stop.”
He had a method. Using a street guide, he matched the destination on his work order to the word that matched in the book. Then, he looked at the numbers that told him how far east, west, north or south that particular street was. He made his way there along the streets he knew were nearby. Chicago’s grid system saved him.
Even so, frustration and worry infused the most mundane of tasks. A decade later, he can still recount the time that he drove up Western Avenue, looking for Virginia Avenue.
He drove so far north he was sure he had passed it. Finally, he pulled over at a gas station and asked for help, only to discover that the street, which runs at an angle, never intersects with Western. After that, he never forgot how to find it.
Always, there was Joyce. Joyce paid the bills. Joyce bought the groceries. Joyce filled out the forms for the children’s schools, for the doctors, for the government.
“I was the boss outside the house and she was the boss inside,” he says.
That gold tooth still glints when Joyce smiles. She touches Calvin when she talks. She pats his shoulders and his knees and she lays her hand on his arm, even when she is teasing him, as she often does.
“I should have let you walk on,” she says to him, as they sit talking about old times in their living room.
“You wouldn’t have let me walk on,” he answers. “You know, when God made you for me, he put the mold up. It wasn’t no more.”
“That’s how you got me, by your talking,” she responds, laughing.
Out of choice or need or her firm belief that a wife shouldn’t, as she puts it, “go higher than her husband,” Joyce rarely acknowledges Calvin’s limited education. She tells people that he takes classes, not that he is learning to read. She tells him that she thinks he “just has that thing where you put letters backwards.”
“Calvin,” she says tartly, “never was the type to have to put an X for his name.”
When he gave her the plate Aaron made, she greeted the gift with a wide grin and a prominent place of display on a living-room table, but she also used it to deliver a series of pointed reminders that what Calvin writes doesn’t mean as much as what he does.
She views his attempts to educate himself with the same mix of exasperation and affection. In one breath, Joyce complains that Calvin leaves her without their van when he goes to class and, in the next, fights back tears when she confesses she can’t rest easy until she sees him walk safely back through the door.
One night, when they are at a restaurant together, the waitress asks Calvin what side dishes he wants with his catfish. He starts to ask her what they have, but before he can finish the question, Joyce begins to read aloud from the menu.
“Well, Calvin,” she says, “they
got mashed potatoes, red beans and rice . . .”
She reads without pausing, without even looking at him.
Her hand rests lightly on his arm.
In the front pew of the Blooming Rose Deliverance Church, two girls nap in a heap of lace-trimmed socks and beaded braids.
The smell of barbecued ribs and fried chicken drifts from the next room, where everyone has just finished the Sunday dinner prepared and served by the church’s male members as part of its annual men’s service celebration.
This is the last of three weekend services at this small, brick building in Englewood that once housed a beauty parlor and was transformed by its pastor, with his own hands, into a stark chapel.
Most of the 40 or so people who have stayed for the 4 p.m. service are sated and a little sleepy, but Calvin sits bolt upright in the second row. In the pew, the tips of his fingers touch his wife’s hand.
Beside him is the program for the service and there, about halfway down the page, is the line “Remarks . . . Bro. C. Cottrell.”
Calvin used to drive Joyce to church but never went inside himself. One day, he did and found himself up at the altar, becoming a member of Blooming Rose.
After that, he sat in the front row almost every Sunday. From the pulpit, the pastor, Solomon Sams, could see that Calvin fumbled with his Bible whenever the call came to find a particular passage.
Calvin didn’t know which way to turn, the pastor noted, frontward or backward. Sams, a one-time machine operator from Mississippi, had seen this problem often enough to instruct his churchgoers to go over and quietly help anyone they saw struggling with the Bible. Calvin, of course, already had Joyce at his side.
Not so long ago, the pastor began to notice a few changes. Although it took Calvin some time, he could find the right page by himself. Instead of leaving his Bible behind on the pew, he began to take it home with him. He seemed less shy about getting up and talking to the congregation.
No one knows what Calvin plans to say this afternoon, not even Calvin himself. For the better part of three months, he has practiced two passages from the Bible but won’t say whether he will read them aloud.
When Aaron asked him several nights ago what he was going to do, all he said was, “When you get up there, the Lord will lead you.”
A few minutes before he is supposed to take the pulpit, he opens his Bible and flips through the pages for a moment or two. Then, he shuts it again.
Joyce leans over.
“Don’t you go on up there,” she says urgently, waving at the step that leads to the pulpit. “Stand in front. I don’t want you to fall down.”
She hands him half a stick of gum and he chews, waiting, while the men’s choir sings.
On the platform next to the pulpit, a young boy in an oversize cream-colored suit plays the drums. The choir, which stands next to him, wears an assortment of outfits in the colors for the service, which are purple and white, arrayed in everything from lilac polo shirts to a white suit with tails and lavender dress shirt.
As they sing, they sway and clap. “We fall down but we get up,” the men sing. “We fall down but we get up.”
There are more songs and a short introduction, then it is Calvin’s turn. He uses both hands to pull himself out of the pew and there he stands before the congregation, in his white pants, black jacket and purple tie, a microphone in his hand.
A clatter of hallelujahs and praise Gods rises up around him.
“I want to say to the men,” he begins, and recites what he remembers of a verse he practiced from Ephesians. “Let no man provide you with vain words because of these things come the wrath of God.”
His Bible still sits where he left it, on the pew, wrapped in its “He’s Alive” cover. In his van is the sheet of notebook paper on which he painstakingly wrote out the Bible verses. But he sounds like he’s reading. There’s that tone to his voice, the mechanical delivery.
Then, he veers in another direction.
“That’s one little thing I wanted to say to the men. Here’s another. Don’t be walking around sucking up air,” he says. “Go somewhere in the Lord.”
He starts to speak faster and faster, until the words blur together. He looks away, then closes his eyes. His voice chokes and tears glisten at the corners of his eyes. “Thank you, Jesus,” he concludes. “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”
The pastor rises from his seat at the side of the pulpit.
“You touched me, Brother Cottrell,” he says.
Two days later, when Calvin meets Aaron, they talk about the service. Aaron realizes that even though Calvin did not read from the Bible, as he originally hoped to do, he accomplished something else.
For the first time, when Calvin wrote out his notes before the service, he used writing the way most people do when they make out a grocery list or take down a telephone message. He used it as a tool, as a means to an end, instead of an end in itself.
“I’m happy to hear Men’s Day was such a success,” Aaron says.
“To tell you the truth,” Calvin answers. “I was kind of disappointed in myself.”
He hadn’t, he says, wanted anyone to see him cry.
V. Where I want to be
From week to week, Calvin’s ability to read lurches back and forth as if he is fighting an invisible current, thrashing a few inches ahead, then dropping back, tired and frustrated. One night, he might make it through an entire sentence or paragraph. Or, the word “here” can stop him dead in his tracks, time and time again.
Learning to read is usually measured in fits and starts. People get worse before they get better, as they master increasingly complex components of the process. Many students reach a plateau and find it hard to move forward.
A good analogy, some researchers say, is a study done of telegraph operators in 1899, which found they learned to receive Morse code in spurts. Operators sped up as they mastered individual letters, slowed down again as they started to grasp entire words and regained speed until they hit another roadblock, when they began to think in phrases.
On paper, Calvin made small, consistent gains. Three times a year, students at the Blue Gargoyle take the Tests of Adult Basic Education to assess their reading and comprehension skills. Calvin started at 0.0 and, by January 2001, he was reading at 1.4, above 1st-grade level.
One afternoon in late summer, a week after his 64th birthday, the usually gloomy church sanctuary fills with sunlight as he walks in to take the test again.
“How are you doing, Calvin?” the Blue Gargoyle’s literacy coordinator, Alison Toback, asks as he sits down.
“Beautiful,” he answers. “Beautiful.”
She slides him the test and asks him to match pairs of letters, then to identify the letters that she calls out. Calvin fumbles a little with the paper but works confidently through the questions.
Then, they move on to questions that ask him to match the sounds at the beginning, middle and end of different words. The first time he took this test, the administrator cut this section short because she realized it was too difficult for him.
“Find the picture whose name ends like nap,” Toback says, asking him to identify a word ending in “p.”
Calvin scans the pictures, then repeats the words under his breath.
“Nut, pole, cup,” he says. “Pole, nut, cup.”
“Nap, cup, nut, pole, cup.”
“I’m going to have to go with cup,” he says.
Calvin correctly identifies the symbols and signs she asks him to pick out: a question mark, a plus sign, a handicapped sign, an open sign, an exit sign.
Finally, they tackle the hardest questions. These require Calvin, reading on his own, to match pictures to phrases or sentences.
“It is raining,” reads one question. “Ann is going out. Which of these is she most likely to take with her?”
Calvin studies the three pictures: a cane, an umbrella, a pair of sunglasses. His pencil hovers in air above the paper, then he carefully fills in the circle beneath the umbrella. Five more questions that he completes, whispering words to himself, and he’s done.
“OK, that’s it,” Toback says.
Upstairs, in the cramped office where the program administrators work under bare light bulbs, she tallies his score. Of the 27 questions designed to measure his reading skills, he missed only four.
Almost two years ago, when he took this test for the first time, Calvin’s grade level was assessed at 0.0. Today, his score is 1.8. He has almost reached the equivalent of 2nd grade.
The windows in the room where the jazz band usually plays are flung open to the warm evening air. Tonight, the music is in the snatches of conversation, bursts of laughter and hum of cars floating in from the street.
Tonight, the music is in the voice of the gray-haired man reading at the table.
Calvin sits next to Aaron, head bowed over a book. He is reading from “Homemade Love,” by J. California Cooper, a novel assigned by his classroom teacher.
“She wooved . . . wahved . . . w-a-v-e-d,” Calvin says, sounding out the word, then spelling it.
“Waved,” Aaron offers.
“Oh. She waved her hand at me.”
The words come slowly, but they come. They come together, as if a thin thread connects them, as if they are shirts strung out on a laundry line.
Calvin spells the words when he can’t read them. He sounds them out.
“P-r-e-g-n-a-n-t,” he says. “Preg, pregant.”
Then, triumphant: “Pregnant.”
“Yeah!” Aaron exclaims.
“. . . Yes, she was fast all night,” he reads, concentrating on the page.
“All right,” Aaron corrects.
They continue until Calvin hits the word “pregnant” again and doesn’t recognize it.
“My eyeballs got sweaty,” he says in mock frustration.
“You’re reading so well tonight,” Aaron says. “Even with sweaty eyeballs.”
Calvin keeps his eyes fixed on the page. “I’ve gone and lost my place,” he says.
A few minutes later, Aaron asks him if he wants to stop. Calvin glances at his watch. He says nothing but continues to read.
When he hits a sentence that talks about the men and boys who hang around a character named Totsy, he pauses.
“Uh-oh,” he says, “she’s one of those nighttime girls.”
After almost 10 minutes, Calvin has read from the top to the bottom of the page.
“You about ready to check out?” Aaron asks.
“Yeah, it’s about that time,” he answers.
“Really good reading tonight, Calvin.”
Calvin stacks the book onto his pile of notebooks and loose papers, then lifts his head and smiles at Aaron.
“Well,” he says, “I ain’t where I want to be, but I ain’t where I was, neither.”
In October, Calvin Cottrell bought his first book.
He chose “To Kill a Mockingbird” because it was selected to inaugurate Chicago’s citywide reading program.
Not long after, he learned he needed eye surgery and temporarily dropped out of the Blue Gargoyle. Scar tissue had clouded the cornea of his left eye, another legacy of his years in the cotton fields, working under the harsh Arkansas sun.
He returned to the adult education program in January, after his eye had healed from the operation, only to be hospitalized four weeks later for complications related to diabetes. He was home in time to celebrate his 43rd wedding anniversary earlier this month.
On Monday, he went back to class.
Play the video clip of Kiernan as she talks about how she used documents when reporting the literacy story.
Kiernan mentions how she even used a train ticket stub to verify information and test the validity of a source for her story, and considers that ticket stub a document in the sense that it is information on paper that is useful in her research and reporting.
Many people may not think of documents in such a broad sense, but as a reporter, any hard copy version of information can be considered a document.
Identify at least three other document sources that may have been used to verify information in Kiernan’s story. Remember, the story may not even attribute the information to a document – the document is used solely for the reporter to check out information.
As an entire class or in small groups, talk about the nature of documents in everyday life. Take 5 to 10 minutes and list the documents that are part of your daily world – they may include a class syllabus or a work time card. Then, brainstorm about stories in which those documents might be very important from a reporter’s point of view. For example, a student’s credit card bill may be fodder for a story on rising student debt. Try to come up with at least ten documents that are part of your daily life and three stories that might come from them.
Finf two newspaper articles that rely on documents. One article should use public documents and the second article should use private documents. Could the document information in those stories be found elsewhere?
How would the stories read without the document information in them?
Write you answers in 1-2 paragraphs.
Writing Tip: Look for metaphors and similes in Kiernan’s writing. She uses them often and powerfully to convey abstract ideas and concepts – such as learning to read. She jotted down one metaphor in her notebook while listening to one of Calvin’s sessions. The image came to her while listening to the tutoring session. Calvin’s words fell from his mouth “like stones.”
Write metaphors for the following acts: An adult learning to ride a bike, an experienced chef creating an intricate pastry, a child building a sandcastle.
Not all government documents are public. But the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act allows reporters access to public documents of all kinds.
Play the video clip of Chicago Tribune reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah talking about how she used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents to verify a tip she received from a source regarding a local college or university president.
FOI the expanse reports for your college or university president.