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For the First Time

For the longest time, Alvin “Buster” Carter tried to guess his way through life. He guessed what the street sign might say. He guessed what the store was advertising in its window. He guessed what the hospital was explaining in the bill it sent home. Because Carter couldn’t read, he had to figure things out -- roughly, and sometimes with unfortunate results.

Like the time he proudly purchased a used car for $3,000. The car looked good, inside and out. It seemed to run well. But within two days, Carter says, the transmission blew out. He called the dealer and told him he’d been sold a lemon. The dealer replied no, the car had a sticker on the side. It read: “As Is.”

Carter hadn’t -- couldn’t -- read the sticker. His friends explained “As Is” meant he accepted the vehicle in the condition it was in. He was stuck with it.

Today, Carter looks back on that incident as inspiration for the English literacy lessons he attends twice a week in the library at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church. Carter walks there from his home in Terrace Apartments to meet his tutor of three years, Carol Rowan, a Salem resident and retired clinical psychologist.

Gathered at the library one recent morning, Rowan and Carter smile warmly and mutually call each other “a blessing.”

For Carter, the tutoring is helping him connect to his grandchildren. At age 57, he can finally read to them (Dr. Seuss’ “Fox in Socks.”) “It fascinates me that I can do something they like,” he says.

For Rowan, the lessons “pulls from me some kind of creativity that isn’t part of my usual thinking,” she says. “I’m always thinking, ‘Ah, what if I try such and such?’ ” for a new tutoring technique.

Carter and Rowan were brought together by Blue Ridge Literacy (BRL), a Roanoke-based nonprofit that provides adult literacy and ESOL services through Western Virginia. Many of BRL’s 450 learners are refugees who are learning functional English skills as they settle into their new American home.

A few are like Carter, who says he lost the ability to read after getting into a severe car accident when he was 13. After six months in a coma, his doctors told him he’d never read again. Since then, he’s worked a variety of jobs as dishwasher, custodian and landscaper. Recently he’s started at the Habitat ReStore on Melrose Avenue.

Carter’s managed to get by, but he sees his lessons with Rowan opening up new doors. “I can survive in society,” he says. “If you don’t have reading skills, you can’t maintain or acquire things you want.”

While Rowan tutors Carter, she’s also trying to teach herself Arabic. The experience humbly reminds her of the immense difficulty of learning a language as an adult. She says she admires Carter for the dedication he’s shown to his regular two-hour BRL sessions. “He thinks it’s the most important thing in his life. In fact,” she says, laughing, “he wants his job arranged around his classes.”

“I may learn more than he does, actually,” she says. “Buster is making progress and he’s very proud of himself. It’s very gratifying.”

Rowan learned of BRL’s volunteer tutoring opportunities through a friend and went through the required four-hour training a day after first calling the organization. “This feels like a calling to me,” she says. “I always just had a notion that this is what I wanted to do when I retired.”

Rowan says it’s been eye-opening to witness the world as Carter sees it -- the “things I didn’t even think about” when literacy wasn’t a given.

“I may learn more than he does, actually,” she says. “Buster is making progress and he’s very proud of himself. It’s very gratifying.”

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