The woman stood up as if she were addressing a person of great importance and admitted to Julie with painful dignity, "My husband says if I weren't stupid, I'd have learned how to read when I was a kid. My kids say the same thing. They say I'm wastin' your time. I only came here because Rosalie said she's learnin' real quick and never thought she could, neither. Either. I said I'd give it a try for a few weeks."
The other women in the room nodded reluctant agreement, and Julie briefly closed her eyes before she admitted to them the truth she'd hidden so long ago and forever. "I know you can all learn to read. I know for a fact that not being able to read doesn't have anything to do with being stupid. I can prove it."
"How?" Pauline asked bluntly.
Julie drew a deep breath and then said wryly, "I know it, because when I came to Keaton, I was in the fourth grade and couldn't read as well as Rosalie already does after a few weeks in this class. I know how it feels to think you're too stupid to learn. I know how it feels to grope your way down a hall and not be able to read the names on the bathroom doors. I know the ways you've figured out to hide it from people so they won't laugh at you. I'm not laughing at you. I'll never laugh at you. Because I know something else … I know how much courage it takes for each one of you to come here twice a week."
The women gaped at her openmouthed, and then Pauline said, "Is that the truth? You couldn't read?"
"It's the truth," Julie said quietly, meeting her gaze. "That's why I'm teaching this class. That's why I'm so determined to get you all the new tools that are available for adults who want to read now. Trust me," she said, straightening. "I'll find a way to get you all those things, that's why I'm going to Amarillo in the morning. All I ask for now is that you have a little faith in me. And in yourselves."
"I got plenty of faith in you," Peggy Listrom joked, standing up and gathering her notebook and pencils. "But I don't know about myself yet."
"I can't believe you said that," Julie teased. "Didn't I hear you bragging at the beginning of class that you were able to sound out some of the street names on the signs in town this week?"
When Peggy grinned and picked up the infant who was napping in the chair in front of her, Julie sobered and decided a little reinforcement was needed to keep them going at this early stage. "Before you all go, maybe you should remind yourselves about why you wanted to learn to read? Rosalie, what about you?"
"That's easy. I want to go to the city where there's plenty of jobs and get off welfare, but I can't get a job because I can't fill out an application form. Even if I could figure out a way to get by that, I still couldn't get a decent job unless I could read."
Two other women nodded agreement, and Julie looked at Pauline. "Pauline, why do you want to learn to read?"
She grinned a little sheepishly. "I'd sort of like to show my husband he's wrong. I'd like to be able to stand up to him just once and prove I'm not stupid. And then…" she trailed off self-consciously.
"And then?" Julie prodded gently.
"And then," she finished on a winsome sigh, "I'd like to be able to sit down and help my kids with their homework."
Julie looked at Debby Sue Cassidy, a thirty-year-old with straight brown hair, luminous brown eyes, and a quiet demeanor who'd been pulled out of school repeatedly by her itinerant parents before she finally dropped out of school in the fifth grade. She in particular struck Julie as being unusually bright and, from what little she'd said in class, very creative and rather well spoken. She worked as a maid; she had the studious demeanor of a librarian. Hesitantly, she admitted, "If I could do anything after I learn to read, there's just one thing I'd do."
"What's that?" Julie asked, smiling back at her.
"Don't laugh, but I'd like to write a book."
"I'm not laughing," Julie said gently.
"I think I could do it someday. I mean, I have good ideas for stories, and I know how to tell them out loud, only I can't write them down. I—I listen to books on tape—you know, for the blind, even though I'm not blind. I feel like I am sometimes, though. I feel like I'm in this dark tunnel, only there's no way out, except maybe now there is. If I can really learn to read."
Those admissions brought an outpouring of other admissions, and Julie began to get a clearer picture of the life these women were relegated to living. Each of them had no self-esteem; they clearly took a lot of bullying from the men they lived with or were married to, and they thought they deserved nothing better. By the time she closed the classroom door behind her, she was ten minutes late for dinner and more resolved than ever to get the money she needed to buy the sort of classroom aids that would help them the fastest.
Ted's squad car was parked in front of her parents' house when Julie pulled up, and Carl was walking up the drive, talking to him. Carl's blue Blazer, which he insisted she take to Amarillo instead of her less reliable car, was parked in the driveway, and Julie pulled in beside it. Both men turned to wait for her, and even after all these years, she still felt a glow of pride and astonishment at how tall and handsome her brothers had grown up to be and how warm and loving they had remained to her. "Hi, Sis!" Ted said, wrapping her in a hug.
"Hi," she said, returning it. "How's the law business?" Ted was a Keaton deputy sheriff, but he'd just earned his law degree and was waiting to get the results of his bar exams.
"Thriving," he joked. "I gave Mrs. Herkowitz a citation for jaywalking this afternoon. It made my day." Despite his attempt at humor, there was a thread of cynicism in his voice that had been there for the past three years, since the failure of his brief marriage to the daughter of Keaton's richest citizen. The experience had hurt and then hardened him, and the entire family knew it and hated it.
Carl, on the other hand, had been married for six months and was all smiles and optimism as he gave her a bear hug. "Sara can't come to dinner tonight, she still isn't over her cold," he explained.
The porch light was on and Mary Mathison appeared in the open doorway beneath its glow, an apron around her waist. Except for some gray strands in her dark hair and the fact that she'd slowed a little since her heart attack, she was still as pretty and vital and warm as ever. "Children," she called, "hurry up! Dinner's getting cold."
Reverend Mathison was standing behind her, still tall and straight, but he wore glasses all the time now, and his hair was almost completely gray. "Hurry along," he said, hugging Julie and patting his sons on their shoulders as they shed their jackets.