"He rode into the city on a donkey ..."
His voice was so sure. There was no hesitation.
We all froze. Helena beside me looked at me and then tears started to flow. She sat quietly down at the table. No one wanted to break the spell of the moment. His voice continued to read about Jesus' triumphant ride into Jerusalem.
We all knew that we were in the presence of a miracle.
But we never ever spoke of it.
Robert had come to the group home with very few possessions. He had a few worn out pieces of clothing. His favourite shirt had the name 'Jason' written in indelible marker on the inside collar. He had two packs of smokes and a lighter half full of gas. His most prized possession though was an old children's Bible that had been given to him by his mother 'on the occasion of his 12th birthday'. That he had managed to keep it for over thirty years was a testiment to his love of that old book.
For all of us the book took on talisman like qualities. Robert was never far from that thing. If he didn't carry it with him, he would have to go back to his room several times to check and make sure that it was safe in the drawer beside his bed. Upon return to the house he'd go straight to the room to assure himself that it was still there. Every night before going to bed he would say his prayers by looking at the pictures in the book and talking quietly to God.
We were all a bit taken aback by his faith. Even those who had no faith or no particular respect for religion found Robert's devotion, if not to God, to that book somewhat inspiring. I remember once picking the book up to bring it downstairs to where Robert was convalesing from a serious fever. It felt somehow fragile in my hands. As if I was carrying his trust, not his book, in my hands. I couldn't believe he let me get it for him.
But the problem was that Robert could not read. He had tried to learn. He took several literacy classes and had managed to identify letters but had no ability to turn those letters into words. The programmes would end, the assessment was always the same - Robert would never read. Whenever he started a new literacy program he always brought that Bible with him, explaining that he wanted to learn to read from that book. Sometimes teachers patiently explained that they would have to work up to the children's Bible. That Robert should try something else, something simpler first. But Robert refused. It was the Bible or it was nothing.
In the end he could read one word.
It was thought that Robert could recognize the collection of letters rather than read the word. Even so, it pleased him to be able to look through the book and point out when the name appeared.
In the fall a new minister had come to Robert's church and was quite taken by Robert's faith and Robert's bible. He visited a few times and heard from Robert and from all of us about Robert's desire to learn to read. About how he had tried over the years but had come to learn only the one word. "Well, you learned to read the most important word in the Gospels," he said to Robert who was pleased by the attention and the praise.
The minister's wife, Tony, had been a teacher before she married and took on the challenge of teaching Robert. She came faithfully every Thursday night and would sit with him and his Bible and they'd work on words. She taught him from the way she figured he learned. By the context of the story. By putting patterns together and learning individual words. She thought that if he recognized enough patterns that his mind would one day figure the rules for itself.
Robert loved the visits. She always brought a treat for the whole house. And though it was us who should have shown her hospitality, it was she that brought it with her. She was not a minister's wife, we realized, she was a minister herself. While she never preached to any of us of her faith, like Robert, it was deeply part of her.
It grew into routine. She would come. They would sit together. We'd hear Robert's fumbled attempts to read, he's start a word, hesitate and then we'd hear her gentle prompt. Two voices would become one and biblical stories were read week after week. We'd invited her a couple of times to house events, parties, get togethers, but she always refused. She wanted him to identify with her as a reader, that she didn't want him to think she'd given up on him and that the relationship had become something other than teacher - student.
Then it happened.
We all knew it the moment that it did.
"He rode into the city on a donkey ..."
Robert's voice was clear. There was no second voice. I had never heard him manage anything other than the word 'Jesus' on his own. I snuck around to look through the dining room door and into the front room where the two of them sat gathered around a TV table. Robert's finger was following the text.
He was reading.
Tony was looking at Robert with astonishment on her face. Tears were falling as Robert read. It was as if he didn't realize what had happened. That he had learned to read. He was just drawn along by the story. Her hand went to her face to wipe the tears away. The motion caught Robert off guard and he looked up at her and asked, "What's wrong?"
"Robert, you're reading."
He was the only one that seemed unsurprised. He knew that one day he'd learn. He just didn't know that it would come so soon, he said.
That day Tony stayed for coffee and we all sat around and toasted Robert. He was shy with the attention but he enjoyed it.
Over time Tony didn't need to come over any more. Robert could read. And he could read everything. Menus, programmes, and of course the Bible given to him on his 12th birthday. When he read the word 'Jason' on his favourite shirt he looked almost disgusted and passed the shirt over to us. He didn't want it any more. We thought that he'd really miss Tony and their regular classes but he never commented on her no longer coming. He knew why she had come. He knew why she no longer came.
When I left that group home for another job, I asked Robert if he ever thought of Tony.
"Sometimes," he said. Then he noticed me waiting. I wanted more.
"Sometimes when I read my Bible I hear her voice in my head, helping me with the words. But I know it's not really her, but it's nice to have the help sometimes."
"You always knew that you would learn?"
"Yes, I knew that if I tried I would learn. But people kept giving up on me. Tony was different. She believed too."
And she did.
In God. In him.
Perhaps faith in one, gives us faith in the other.