Never Too Old to Learn

January 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Last week, I flew to Boston to see my 101-year-old grandmother for what will likely be the last time. Her lucidity came and went throughout our few hours together, and at times she seemed to look at me and see a much younger version of her granddaughter. “What are your studying in school?” she asked.

“I’m not in school anymore,” I answered. “I’m all grown up! I have kids in school now.”

“That’s no excuse!” she exclaimed, in a playful but insistent tone I recognized all too well.

Perhaps she was simply covering up her mistake. But perhaps not. My paternal grandmother may have attended college for only two years, but she spent much of her adult and geriatric life chasing down knowledge wherever she could. She read biographies voraciously. She traveled the world. She referred to herself as a “news junkie” when you came upon her studying a newspaper. When she moved into her retirement home at 88, she signed up for every class they offered, from Buddhism to World War Two. “I’m taking a fascinating class about the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” she reported on the phone one day. “It has me quite disturbed, actually.”

On another call: “I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s new book. He’s an absolutely brilliant biologist. I’m not sure I’m understanding a word of it, but I suppose some of it might be sneaking in!”

Learning as something to be seized and cherished is a value I will always credit to my grandmother. Still, learning is a luxury not afforded to all, and nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the stories of American slaves. Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s new picture book biography, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Ages 6-10), movingly illustrated by collage artist Oge Mora, tells the incredible true story of a former slave who achieved her lifelong dream of learning to read at the astounding age of 116.

From the moment we open the book, beginning with the black-and-white photographs decorating the end papers and reminding us of the truth of what we’re reading, it seems almost unfathomable that a woman who became known for saying, “You’re never too old to learn,” had to wait over one hundred years to embark on her own education.

Born into slavery in 1848, working the cotton fields on an Alabama plantation, Mary envies the freedom of the birds overhead. She knows she can’t move from her spot until she’s told; and she knows slaves can’t be taught to read or write. When I’m free, I’ll go where I want. And I’ll learn to read, too.

While we are afforded this window into Mary Walker’s life story, we are also privy to the historical movements which shape that story, including the Civil War, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement. Children who might be quick to assume that freedom opened up ample educational opportunities for African Americans are presented with a convincing example to the contrary.

Freed at fifteen with the Emancipation Proclamation, Mary and her family are left “with nothing except the tattered garments on their backs,” struggling to find “food, clothes, and a place to sleep.” Moving into a one-room cabin with her single mother, Mary spends every waking hour caring for her siblings and helping her mother clean houses. She treasures the Bible she is given—a preacher claims her “civil rights” can be found in its pages—and promises herself she will one day learn to read its words.

Once married, Mary and her husband, like many Southern African Americans, become sharecroppers, with long hours and little pay continuing to define her daily life. When her first son is born, she has to ask someone to write his name and birthday in her Bible.

When Mary gets too old for sharecropping, she strings together different menial jobs, caught in the spiral of poverty, where pay is linked to education but education dependent on money and time. The little free time she amasses she puts towards assisting her local church, where still she clutches a Bible she cannot read.

At 114 years of age, Mary has outlived her entire family, including the sons who used to read aloud to her. Up to this point, Mary’s portrait has been one of tremendous fortitude, but it is also brimming with yearning—an emotion particularly palpable in Mora’s artwork, with its emphasis on body language. Our heart aches for Mary, as she gazes out the window of her retirement home, the letters and words of the outside world as squiggly as the Vs of the birds which soar overhead.

Still, Mary’s characteristic optimism persists, evident in the way she marches through the halls of the retirement home and straight into a reading class. “No more waiting,” she decided. “Time to learn.”

Can you imagine learning anything at 114, much less how to read? I remember helping my son with his reading on a train ride to New York when he was six, and as we stood up to gather our luggage, the man sitting behind us said, “I don’t think I ever realized how difficult the English language is!” Here is Mary Walker, likely the oldest student in the entire country, bent over books and paper and pencil for hours a day until she can recognize sight words and write sentences of her own. Again, Mora’s artwork is powerfully evocative, with a stream of letters mirroring the slope of Mary’s back.

My daughter especially loves the pages which follow, dedicated to the well-deserved fanfare Mary’s achievements bring her, including a visit from the Chattanooga mayor and President Lyndon B. Johnson; interviews with newspaper reporters and radio shows; a graduation certificate; various plaques and two Keys to the City; and yearly birthday parties for the next seven years, during which Mary reads aloud favorite passages from her Bible or schoolbook “in a voice clear and strong.” That’s right: she lived until she was 121. (I have to admit: I actually didn’t realize anyone lived that long.)

As Mary learns to read, the landscape around her transforms: where once there were squiggles, now there are words. This visual transformation is surpassed only by the emotion on the faces of those who crowd around her dignified form as she reads aloud to friends and acquaintances at her legendary birthday parties. Watching someone relish a love of learning is at once transportive and contagious. May Mary’s example inspire us, as my own grandmother has me, that we are never too old to learn.

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Review copy from Penguin Young Readers. All opinions are my own. affiliate links, although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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§ 6 Responses to Never Too Old to Learn

  • What a beautiful post, Melissa! Your grandmother sounds like such a charming, spunky woman. I love her determination to always continue learning! And the book sounds truly inspiring. Once again a picture book is perfect for all ages!

  • ritalorraine says:

    Hello Melissa, I’m Rita Lorraine, the author of the book. Thank you for such a LOVELY, and thoughtful review. Thanks for sharing your grandmother’s story and your daughter’s reaction too. I treasure learning how this story impacts readers! I learned about Mary when I was in 4th or 5th grade, but never knew the intricacies of her story until decades later. She was and is still a true inspiration. Thanks again!

    • thebookmommy says:

      Thank you so much, Rita! I can’t tell you how moved I am by Mary’s story–each and every time I read this book. Of course, Mary’s story would be amazing any way it was told, but your narrative arc unfolds so beautifully, building suspense, and invoking such compassion for its subject.

  • Rita says:

    What an excellent review of a most excellent book! I read this gem last week, but your heartfelt review allowed me to enjoy its magic once again. Thank you!

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