An awakening as sudden as it was violent

Shop TalkFrom James Maurer, It Can Be Done (New York:  The Rand School, 1938).

Learning to Read

Working beside me in the machine shop was a journeyman named Thomas King.  I learned later that he was one of the original organizers of the Knights of Labor.  He talked to me about justice and labor’s rights, of the need for workers to organize, of their solidarity at the ballot box, and other ideas new to me.  They were subjects that I knew nothing about and cared less; he might as well have talked about trigonometry or the nebular hypothesis for all the impression he made on me at first.  However, I pretended to be interested so as not to hurt his feelings, for outside what I thought were his foolish notions, he was a good fellow always ready to help me in my work.

One day he asked me if I would care to hear him make a speech.  I really wasn’t interested in a speech by him or anybody else, but I agreed to go in order not to offend him.  The meeting was held in the Junction House Park and several hundred attended.  The next morning King asked me what I thought of his speech.  Ashamed to admit that I hadn’t understood it I cheerfully lied, “Great!”  He then gave me a small pamphlet with the remark, “Read that and tell me what you think of it.”

It was the first time anyone had asked me for an opinion on something in print, and that night after supper I tackled the pamphlet, but try as I might I found the job too much for me.  I could spell out the words but could pronounce only a few;  and some were so big I suspected they belonged to another language.  For over an hour I wrestled with the little pamphlet, determined to find out what it had to say, but finally had to acknowledge defeat.  Mother’s prayer book lay on the table;  I hurriedly opened it and tried to read it, but could not.

I was nearly sixteen, yet had no idea why anyone should learn to read.  My vocabulary consisted of a few hundred simple words, fully half of which I pronounced wrong or with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent.  That evening I had an awakening as sudden as it was violent.  For the first time in my life it dawned on me why children were sent to school;  schools weren’t penal institutions after all.  I rushed to the front room to Mother, fairly screaming;  “Why can’t I read!”

“Why, Jimmie!” she exclaimed.  “What are you talking about?”  I explained myself.  “Well,” said Mother, “it’s like this, Jimmie.  We always were poor and instead of going to school you had to go to work.  And, besides, you never seemed to get anything out of school when you did go.”

Up to then no one had taken the trouble to explain the purpose of learning the alphabet or the multiplication table.  I could recite the multiplication table by heart, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what use I was to make of it;  it sounded like a poem without any sense.  And I couldn’t understand why I should learn to spell “apple” or “horse” or “cat,” when I could say the words so much more quickly.  That is the way I had reasoned out the scheme of education, and not even the educators had thought of setting me on the right track.  It was a little labor pamphlet that switched me off the narrow path of illiteracy to the broad highway of knowledge and light.

The next morning when King asked me what I thought of the pamphlet I frankly admitted that I couldn’t read it.  He looked at me in amazement.  “Sixteen and you can’t read!” he exclaimed.  “Boy, what have you been doing with yourself all these years?”  I made no effort to excuse myself.  Instead, I said: “I’d give a thousand dollars, if I had them, to be able to read.”  For a quarter of an hour or so neither of us spoke another word.  King was evidently doing some serious thinking.  Finally he came over to my machine and laying a hand on my shoulder, said;  “Jimmie, I’ll give you your chance and it won’t cost you a cent.”

And with that Tom King, the labor leader, opened a school with me as his only pupil.  Our schoolroom during the day was the machine shop, with our machines for desks.  Two or three nights a week he labored with me at home, and thus he started me on a journey I should have begun ten years before.  For over a year King worked with me;  I read everything I could lay my hands on, and I developed my knowledge of mathematics by measuring everything in and around the machine shop and figuring out the square and cube of each.


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