Learning to read brings young, young at heart together

Jeff Schmucker

Despite the multiple generation gaps between him and the gathering of children surrounding him, Alferd Williams felt right at home.

In some ways they might be worlds apart, but their one commonality brings them all together. It wasn’t that long ago that he, like the students, first learned to read.

Gathered on a multicolored floor mat displaying the multiplication tables, students at various grade levels from St. Gregory's School in Maryville, Mo., anxiously awaited Williams’ arrival Friday.

As he entered the room, Williams was all smiles –– excitedly sitting before them and taking out his favorite books written by Bill Cosby.

The 70-year-old has a lot to be smiling about. Throughout his life he never had the opportunity to learn how to read. Like his father before him, he was a laborer. Back in his younger days, an education wasn’t available to him.

But since learning to read at Edison Elementary School in St. Joseph, Mo., Williams has started to see all his dreams come true.

As his story has circulated, his popularity has grown –– allowing him the opportunity to appear on "Opera," the "Early Show," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and be interviewed by multiple newspaper and magazine writers.

Cosby even visited him in St. Joseph. Now he’s closer to fulfilling his dream of helping young people, go to college, get a business degree and help his community.

"Learn to do whatever it is you want to do and don’t give up on your dreams," Williams told the students, "Don’t wait until you’re 60 or 70 years old. You can have your dreams come true right now."

After reading a little from his book, Williams pauses, at times to address his captive audience with a story, to point something out in the book or even to pause at a word that briefly throws him.

But he doesn’t let that embarrass him. Rather, he turns the situation into a story and lets them know he doesn’t mind admitting he doesn’t know something and will ask those standing closest about it.

So if he doesn’t know how to pronounce a word, he says he’ll ask someone if they do and keep asking until he finds someone who does.

By the end of class, Williams gives each student a high-five with plenty of smiles and laughter to go around. Some even stay afterward and ask him more questions.

"I can tell you all are going to be good learners, because you’re also good listeners."

But before they all depart, the third and fourth grade classes have gifts for Williams –– books they made (one from each grade level), a reading light, a Saint Gregory’s School sweat shirt and $102, so he can buy more books or other needs.

After the students have all filed out of the class, Williams reflects on what both he and the students have gained.

"I got the experience before I got the knowledge, they’re getting the knowledge before they got the experience," Williams said. "But I think I’m a part of them and that’s how they accept me. Not as a teacher, but just like they are."

Through that bond, he said he hopes they view reading and learning just as he does –– as a doorway to future opportunities that can take you anywhere.

That includes from an uneducated man to a celebrity or from a 70-year-old student to someone better equipped to make a difference.

Maryville Daily Forum