Marguerite has come a long way
By Ulli Diemer
Seven News, April 4, 1984
“I didn’t know what a school room looked like.”
The words are Marguerite Godbout’s. A few short years ago, Marguerite was one of several million functionally illiterate adults in Canada. Two weeks ago, a hundred or more people were squeezing into the Ward 7 offices of the East End Literacy program to be present while she autographed copies of her newly published book, appropriately titled I’ve Come a Long Way.
The book is her life story, beginning with her childhood in rural New Brunswick, already afflicted with a life-long handicap that made walking the long distance to school impossible. She tells of moving to Toronto, of working in a “sheltered workshop” for the physically handicapped. Significantly, she left the workshop behind after four years. “I felt they were using us,” she says, noting that the pay she received was perhaps $1.20 a week. She also didn’t like the idea of being segregated. “I feel we should be with all kinds of I people, not shut away by ourselves.”
Her determination to seek the rewards and take the risks of living a full life gave her the experiences – happy, funny, sad – that became the material for this book. Talking about her life to her literacy tutor one day, Marguerite exclaimed, jokingly, “I could write a book on what we’ve just talked about” “Why don’t we?” was the reply of Olive Day, the tutor, and suddenly things were under way.
The book is a testimonial to the determination of the author, a woman who undertook a regular 20-minute struggle up a flight of stairs to even get to her adult literacy class. It is also a reflection of help and encouragement given by friends and teachers; Jenny Nice, Olive Day and Martha.
At the same time, the process by which the book came to be written is also a good example of East End Literacy’s approach to teaching adults how to read. EEL sees the lack of suitable reading materials as one major barrier to successful literacy work with adults. Some classes for adults actually use Grade One readers; others use “adult” texts so babyish in tone and content that enlightened teachers wouldn’t use them with six-year-olds. (A typical “story” from one text reads: “I am a man. I am a happy man. My wife is a good, happy woman.”)
East End Literacy sees such material as not only supremely boring, but as insulting and humiliating to people who very often have to struggle against feelings of shame and social stigma in even admitting they can’t read and in looking for help in learning. EEL’s approach is to start with the students’ own experiences, to take them seriously, and to use those experiences as the basis for designing a curriculum that is truly relevant.
This is how Marguerite Godbout came to produce her own “textbook”: initially, she dictated her stories to tutor Olive Day, who wrote them down; the written material then became the “reader” from which Marguerite learned to read. The book is now being used as a text by other students, who find the content, describing the life story of a person who like them has struggled against illiteracy, infinitely more relevant than any standard reader could be. At the same time, the book – and the author – are an inspiration to them, helping them to believe that they too can be successful in the challenge they have undertaken.
East End Literacy has published three other books written by students. According to staff member Sally McBeth, EEL’s aim is to work toward a series of books of this type which would be available to literacy classes across Canada.