“I never ritten a money order befour. Win learnd me how to right a money order. I feel good about righting a money order. Bennie is a happy mans.” – Bennie Spann, 73 yrs. old
Reflections on Bennie – Melissa Moore, President
Bennie first came to Read Muskegon at the age of 72 after he was referred to us by a local GED program. Bennie’s reading level was too low to be able to participate and they felt he may never be able to learn to read. When we gave him the TABE test, he scored a zero. Despite that, he was determined to learn and committed to meeting with his tutor twice a week. Over the last year, through freezing winter weather and health challenges, he has rarely missed a session.
This past August, Bennie stood in my office door while he was waiting for his tutoring session and we started reflecting on the past year. I was watching him think back on what he had accomplished and I couldn’t help but think about the significance of the simple fact that he was standing in my doorway telling me how proud he was of himself. Think about what it takes as adult to tell another adult that you are proud of yourself – not to mention saying that to someone you would have been intimidated to speak to a year ago. When Bennie enters our center these days, he stops to talk to everyone in a way that lets you know he feels celebrated here, that he belongs. His pride is evident. While we were talking, Bennie shared with me how stressed he used to be every single day because he knew that people were taking advantage of him because he couldn’t read. He said he used to be afraid he would be arrested for paying a bill late because someone had told him that was a fact and he couldn’t read well enough to understand that it wasn’t. He laughed and said he believed he had less grey hair today than when he started because he didn’t worry as much. And then, he said something I will never forget. He looked right at me and said “You know, I was 72 when I started at Read Muskegon and I’m 73 now. I learned more in my one year of working with Win than I have the whole rest of my life combined.” What greater gift is there to give someone who has struggled for so long?
When I share Bennie’s story with local businesses or foundations, I sometimes wonder if they think Bennie is a worthy investment. While it feels good to help someone of Bennie’s age to read, does it answer our quest to improve our economy, lower our crime rates or improve our high school graduation rates in a community where only 5% of 3rd graders read at grade level? My answer is yes. Because Bennie is a father, a grandfather and a very proud great-grandfather. He is a role model for his family of determination, resilience and hope. His great-grandson, who is 4, is one the beneficiaries of Bennie’s hard work because they now read books together that Bennie choose for him at our literacy center. Research tells us that this is how we break the generational cycle of illiteracy, which in turn impacts all of those other areas of societal concern.
Bennie’s story is really best told through his own words. The following page is something he recited to Win, his tutor. He has also shared a little bit of his story in the video we are submitting. Bennie’s voice is soft due to some health issues so we have subtitled it for clarity.
“I found out about my previous tutor, Phyllis, at the Adult Education Center in Muskegon. That was 15 years ago. I worked with Phyllis for 2 years. She taught me a lot. Unfortunately, Phyllis passed away and I could not find a teacher quite as good as her. Then I found another teacher just as good as Phyllis. Even though Phyllis was white and Win in black, I could swear they are sisters because they teach alike.
I grew up in Mississippi. I went to school in Mississippi. I could not go to school like I wanted to because I had to work in the field. I moved to Muskegon for work when I was 25. I moved with my wife and kids. I worked construction. I bought a house in Muskegon. I did all of this without knowing how to read or write. When I filled out applications, I scribbled a lot of the time to hide the fact that I couldn’t spell very well. I also took odd jobs sometimes. I made good money.
Not knowing how to read and write makes life harder. For instance, when I used to drive back to Mississippi I would have to drive slow on the highway so I have more time to read the signs. But the last time I drove to Mississippi, I was able to read the signs faster and drive at full speed because of the reading practice I have been doing with Win.”
Bennie Spann – Age 73