May 17, 2012
STRANGER: Kay Cameron
LOCATION: Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Dinner with an English literacy tutor
Kay Cameron didn’t want to meet me.
“I thought, ‘Oh god, that just sounds horrible,’” she said when recounting the first time she read a forwarded email I’d sent asking for an interview. Kay is a part-time, volunteer English tutor living temporarily in Washington, DC. She’s a fellow Brit and is only in the city until August when her husband finishes an International Monetary Fund (IMF) assignment and they move back to England.
I had reached out to her organization, the Washington Literacy Center, interested to learn more about teaching others to learn to read. Although Kay really didn’t want to sit down to dinner with a random stranger, she said her hesitance — coupled with living away from home — was the very reason she eventually agreed to join me for a meal at Kramerbooks.
“There’s something liberating about not being at home, I’m starting to embed that belief about doing things I really don’t want to do while I’m here,” she said.
Our venue for the mild May night was out on the porch at Kramerbooks, a hybrid bookshop/restaurant. Neither of us were particularly hungry for appetizers, so we put in orders just for main courses, got ourselves some wine and then settled in for the interview.
Kay was born and raised in Leeds, a city in the north of England, and then went to university in Manchester. “It wasn’t until going to university that I properly met my first person from the south of England,” she said, bursting into an infectiously warm laugh.
At university she studied government and politics, something she said she was passionate about after growing up under the reign of Margaret Thatcher. “I came from a political household, I loved the political theory and philosophy and at the time imagined my career might be something in politics. But I got involved in student politics which turned me off completely.”
While her interest in a political career faded, she kept her focus on social justice issues and since graduating has largely worked for non-profits, helping set up and manage programs, with a particular focus on working on programs geared to helping young people.
She worked in various cities in the north of England before moving to London. She never aspired to live in England’s capital, but said that she fell in love with it. “I had been forewarned that the people were deeply unfriendly, but London’s the friendliest place that I’ve lived without a doubt. And I never get past the thrill of seeing the big sights” like Parliament or Big Ben, she said.
It was in London that she also started dating the man that would eventually become her husband. They had attended university together in Manchester, but it wasn’t until they were both living in England’s capital that they got to know each other.
The couple have two children, and though the family is for now in DC they still consider London their permanent home. But her husband’s work with the IMF means that until August the family are making a temporary home in America’s capital. Kay said she didn’t try the arduous process of applying for a work visa — primarily because of the children. She wanted to be around them while they were experiencing life in a strange city.
Still, Kay needed something to do during school hours so she started putting feelers out to help on a voluntary, unpaid basis with various non-profits in Washington.
The process was tough. “I thought I could easily get a portfolio of policy work here, but it was much more difficult than I imagined,” she said. A glut of young idealistic workers moving to the city means many programs are over-subscribed for volunteers. Other limitations included volunteer work that would require a security clearance. “That’s not possible, I have no past here,” Kay said.
The struggle to find a volunteer placement in DC mirrored similar limits to finding work with an adult literacy group in London. Back home and in America, she couldn’t find an organization that was local to her and that had open sessions at the time she was looking.
Kay knew however that she wanted to work in literacy. “It’s always been something that I’ve felt strongly about. Partly because I did an English course at university, and it’s extraordinary for me to imagine what it must be like to not have had access to that, to not have the option to be a reader. For me, reading has opened up worlds — things that I would never, and will never, experience. I think that it is deeply sad to not have the opportunity to do that.”
“Adult illiteracy is a silent thing”
Beyond the personal feelings, Kay said that literacy is also important economically and socially. Or, as she succinctly put it, “You’re stuffed if you can’t read.”
Kay eventually found what she was looking for with the Washington Literacy Center, which offers tutor opportunities for adults seeking to overcome their illiteracy. It’s been around for roughly 50 years, and tutors work either off-site or at the Center’s U Street office.
“Anybody who gets themselves referred to an adult literacy program — it is a real act of bravery,” Kay said. “When you’re an adult there must be such a sense of shame about it. It’s a silent thing. People come up with very clever techniques to cover up their literacy problems.”
For example, the student that Kay is working with — a Jamaican immigrant living in the city — had been able to get away with holding down a steady manual labor job and hiding his lack of reading ability by observing what other people were doing in the workplace and following their lead. “In some manual jobs, you probably can get by if you have a little bit of knowledge and have the eye to observe. It must be absolutely exhausting,” she said.
Kay’s student told her that he wanted to learn to read in DC partly because he sees moving to America as a new start and a chance to tackle his reading problems, and partly because programs like the Washington Literacy Center were not available in Jamaica.
The Center’s mission is help functionally illiterate adults gain skills in reading, writing, spelling, and comprehension. The Center has classes weekly and students have to commit to going to two classes a week.
“On average it takes three years for students to complete the course, but it depends on where they’re starting from,” Kay said. She’s been with her student since 2010.
Initially she was worried about how to come up with lessons. But the Center helped by providing a standardized lesson plan. “Past a certain point you make it your own — I might emphasize some aspects and de-emphasize the others,” she said. “At first I wondered if the lesson plan would be restrictive, but it was a blessing because I hadn’t got a clue how to teach someone literacy. It also probably helps students by giving them a structure.”
She meets with her student for about an hour-and-a-half. Tasks include having him sound out letters that Kay has arranged on a magnetic board into both real words and nonsense words. It’s not to trick him, but to show him how to help develop language skills. “If I only used real words he might just learn them through repetition” and not be able to catch made-up words, Kay said.
The student also reads words from books and Kay scores him, with that result determining whether they can move on to the next stage of the lesson plan. “I also dictate sentences for him to write, or he’ll read a passage and then tell me what that passage was about. He’s really interested in current affairs, so I’ll read some articles to him from the newspaper and he’ll spell out words.”
Kay said the first lesson was a revelation. “I remember being really, really shocked by what a struggle it was for him and thinking, ‘I can’t do this. It will take reserves of patience that I don’t think I have.’” But she persevered, and she said doing so has been beneficial to both her student and also for her. “It’s been fantastic for me, and there’s no dread anymore,” she said.
While Kay had been telling me about her literacy work, I had barely noticed our incredibly polite waiter arrived to deliver our entrees. But looking down, there they were.
Kay chose the whole grain and veggie platter. Among the many ingredients on her plate was an organic quinoa and farro risotto salad with fresh herbs, sauteed fresh kale, broccoli rabe, grilled fresh asparagus, pan-roasted root veggie hash and a cannellini bean crostini.
“For the last two or three months I’ve stopped eating any animal products,” Kay said as she explained her vegetarian option. That decision came about when she caught a documentary online about the downsides of eating animal products. “It made an impact. I don’t know if this will be a permanent choice. But I used to be a vegetarian, so vegetarianism is no big deal.”
Kay said she enjoyed her meal, and I also liked my non-vegetarian option.
I went for the smothered bayou catfish — a fish filet coated with Cajun spices and corn flakes, served with a creamy sauce of shrimp, sausage and chicken, red pepper, onion and scallions, over roasted garlic mashed potatoes, greens and a tomato.
I was initially wary of a slab of fish coated in corn flakes, but the crunch was a nice touch and the spiced-up fish was flavorful without being overwhelming.
The food wasn’t jaw-droppingly amazing but it was an enjoyable meal, well done and with excellent service. Overall we both gave Kramerbooks good marks, and I’d go back.
Kay was also glad to have had the chance to try the restaurant, as she’d been meaning to go there for a while. When she’s not working as a tutor, she spends a lot of time walking around the city and seeing new sights. She’s also started writing some fiction. “My starting point is a very thinly veiled version of my experience in America,” she said.
Adjusting to life in the States has been harder than she imagined. “I thought, ‘I know America, it’s the same language.’ But I hadn’t really appreciated how different it is.”
Even swapping one capital for another — London for DC — was an eye-opener. “I don’t think DC is a normal capital city and I was completely unprepared for that. It’s a much smaller place in a lot of ways. It didn’t really look like America in that sense. So that was all very surprising.”
Other changes that Kay has had to get used to are similar to those I’ve experienced. For one thing, Americans tend to have a larger personality than the Brits. Kay saw this once at the zoo when the family next to her were whooping with excitement about some animal behind bars. “My son told me that Americans seem to get really excited about things that aren’t that exciting.”
Then there are other, more serious problems. “I find DC monstrously segregated, I can’t make peace with that,” Kay said.
“I fully intend to carry on with this in London”
Despite some growing pains with her temporary life in the States, Kay said she’s sure she’ll miss the place.
“I’ll miss the weather and the blue skies. It just makes everything better. I didn’t know how green DC was, and that’s just extraordinary. I just love the physicality of the city, and also how easy it is to get out of it and go to places. I will really regret not having that,” Kay said.
Still, she said she’ll be happy to have her life in England back.
I’m glad Kay overcame her initial reluctance to do the interview before she leaves.
The meal felt far more like two people talking about everything and anything that came to mind, with plenty of laughs along the way, rather than a formal question-and-answer session. We’d often veer off-topic into our thoughts as Brits on living in America, unprintable stories about some of the past dinner interviews, and plenty else — often coupled with humor.
I’m sure her easygoing nature has served her well during her stint with the Washington Literacy Center. And that work has left a permanent mark on her.
“I fully intend to carry on with this somehow in London,” Kay said as we wrapped up dinner. “This experience has confirmed everything that I ever thought about adult literacy and how important it is, and so I definitely want to be involved with it.”
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This is actually a unique project. Refreshing change from the mundane blogs.