Sympathy Place

When I began to be a good adult literacy teacher (as opposed to when I first began to teach adult literacy when I was well-meaning but far from good), I was lucky enough to have a wonderfully dynamic, funny, out-spoken, fiery woman in my class. Her name is Annabell (and her name really is Annabell, and I’m using her real name because that’s just what’s called for … Annabell wouldn’t be about hiding behind some name I might make up for her).

When I met her, Annabell was seventy and had been learning to read for about five years. Or maybe I should say that when I met her, Annabell was about seventy and had been learning to read for five years … I would swear she changed her birth year every time she filled out a form! In any case, she was an older lady. An African American lady from the islands off the coast of South Carolina. A lady with the most interesting accent and an occasionally … ahem … blue vocabulary. A lady with the daintiest ankles you have ever seen. A lady who could sing a good blues song, could sing a good gospel song, could get up on stage alone and pass her delicate-strong voice out over the audience rocking steady with “Jesus Is on the Main Line.” A lady who could be as sour as she was sweet, as ribald as she was demure. A lady. Truly.

The whole time we’ve known each other, Annabell has called me ‘Daisy.’ Until I started working with more heavily-Latino ESOL populations, she was the only person who could get away with calling me Daisy. Because she was Annabell, and I adored her … and because there was no getting her to understand that she wasn’t saying the right name. She is the student who would look at my name written on the board and ask me, “Daisy, why you spell your name so it looks like Stacie?” She is the student who, when she started writing me letters during summer break, would put “Stacie” on the envelope … and “Dear Daisy,” on the letter. She is the student who would go apple picking every fall and bring me a sack of fresh apples and then, when I would remind her that I am allergic to apples, would give me her pretty little kiss face and say, “Shiiiit.”

Today she is living in the south again, back in Carolina. She calls me from time to time and leaves funny messages: “Daisy! This Annabell calling you.” “Daisy. I want to talk to you, and I just get this thingmachine.” … I finally got caller ID so it would save her number and I could call her back.

Annabell is a writer. It’s a good thing she was finally able to find a literacy program because I can’t imagine what she did for the first 65 years of her life before she could put her ideas on paper. Once she learned to write even a little, she was writing stories and poems. The more proficient she became, the more she wrote. She was amazing. By the time she came to my class, one of her stories had been chosen for Symphony Space. She was proud of that and kind of expected to be chosen the next year and the year after that, too. Unfortunately, that’s not the way Symphony Space works. I suppose they might have chosen a writer more than once, but I think they actually strive not to do that. They want to have as broad a group of writers as they can, inspire as many students as they can.

Annabell would be upset each spring when we’d get the word that she hadn’t been chosen. She would do the kiss-face swear every time and complain about how she had been passed over. One year my boss decided that we should do our own version of “All Write!” at our Center: have students choose two poems or stories they wanted read and the teachers, tutors, and program staff would be the readers. Annabell liked that idea and talked a lot about it, about our decision to create our own Symphony Space … except she didn’t get the name right. She called it “Sympathy Place” … and we all decided that was a better name for what we were doing, and we officially chose that name for our in-house performance. Sympathy Place was a big hit each year. It was great to be able to give that gift to our students, and it was so much fun for us as staff.

When I read about this ‘Student Stories’ weekly series, Annabell was the first student I thought of. How not? Even though I have taught so very many people, no one holds the place in my heart that Annabell does. There are so many things to love about her. And I love all of them. There were plenty of things I learned from her, too. One of the first ones was about writing. She showed me just how actively I create obstacles between myself and my writing. There she was, with her limited use of written language, and she couldn’t stop writing. It’s a lesson I would do well to remember every day.


(I’m late from Thursday.)

is hosted every Thursday by Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers.


4 thoughts on “Sympathy Place

  1. She sounds… inspiring.

    I can imagine what it was like for her to not be able to write her stories. Though I’m literate, I’ve never had the time. I’m making it now, even if it kills me.

    She sounds like a blast to know. Do you have any links to her writing?

    Turkish Prawn


  2. Maggie, dammit

    Wow. She sounds incredible. I can only hope to have half as much drive and determination at that age. What a cool example she’s setting.


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