An Ambition to Write a Letter

By Daniele Berman, Operations Manager

Originally printed in the Durham Herald-Sun on August 15, 2015

IMG_0131At first blush, the two gentlemen who recently visited Book Harvest don’t appear to have much in common.

Peter Denton, known by most as Chip, is a pastor-turned-headmaster who founded Trinity School, a classical Christian school on the border of Durham and Chapel Hill, more than 20 years ago. Julius Robinson, or J.R., never finished high school, has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, spent time in prison, and now in his 60s is just four years into his journey of learning to read.

But spend just a few minutes with the pair, and you’ll quickly learn that their shared passions for faith and literacy make them a perfect match.

J.R. grew up in a large family in Durham, spending much of his childhood working to put food on the table instead of learning his ABCs. Through social promotion and help from classmates, he made it to 10th grade at Northern High School before he dropped out for good. Without the literacy skills he needed to succeed, J.R. spent the next several decades in and out of various jobs. At 52, he made the brave decision to admit to a counselor that he was illiterate.

Says Chip of what he has learned from his friendship with J.R., “We have forgotten the wonder of reading, the sheer joy of understanding something for ourselves, the sort of freedom that comes from reading — JR speaks about reading like it is eating, giving him great pleasure and necessary sustenance.”

Chip and J.R. met in 2013 at a celebration of 50 years of integration at Duke University. After J.R. shared his faith and asked the panel for advice for his literacy journey, Chip says he “made a beeline” to meet this man whose passions so clearly matched his own. The men have shared an inspiring friendship ever since.

Two days a week, J.R. works with Debbie, his tutor at the Durham Literacy Center. No longer ashamed to share that he is just learning to read, he is proud to share his hard work and the progress he has made: reading at about a third grade level, and mastering sight words and the “magic E.”

Four years ago, J.R. didn’t know the difference between a vowel and a consonant; now, he has read an entire biography of Frederick Douglass and has big dreams for what’s next. Those dreams? Getting his GED, going to college, and perhaps most poignant of all, writing a letter. And he does not doubt for a minute that with continued hard work, often as much as 20 hours a week, he will accomplish his goals.

Sadly, J.R.’s story is not unique to students of generations past. Two-thirds of America’s children in poverty are growing up in homes without books. Academically, these children are on average three years behind children in homes with lots of books, even when controlled for other factors such as income and parents’ education. And that deficit is troublingly persistent: 88 percent of first graders who are below grade level in reading will continue to read below grade level in fourth grade.

This is where Book Harvest comes in. This local nonprofit is working to close the income-based book gap in the Triangle and make sure all students are afforded the opportunities J.R. is now so keenly aware of having missed. “Tell them what I don’t have, what I have lost,” says J.R. of what he wants schoolchildren today to know. “Tell them that I have been lost in the world, lost where I lived.”

J.R.’s joy in his accomplishments is contagious, and his passion to share his intertwined journeys to faith and literacy couldn’t be more inspiring. And the emotion in his face and his voice as he reads “Give a book. Change a life” on the Book Harvest banner could not be more evident: “Amen. That’s the truth!”