It's homework time at the Roberts household and sheets of paper from a pink binder are scattered across the kitchen table. Tina Roberts, a mother of four, sits with her oldest daughter, Chasidy, to go over spelling and math problems.
But the work isn't for Chasidy. It's for Mom.
They chuckle together as Chasidy goes over Mom's answers: “Momma, uh-uh, that's wrong. You gotta do this right. This isn't right.”
Roberts is 26 years old. She has the reading and writing skills of a second-grader. She has the math skills of a third-grader. If nothing changes, Chasidy, 7, will have higher functioning academic skills than her mother when she finishes third grade next year.
Roberts wants her kids to chase their dreams through education. She wants to go to college some day. But that life is on hold until she erases the tag: functionally illiterate.
“I try to keep looking at it like it's fixable,” Roberts said. “I can fix this.”
The Bible study rooms on the second floor of the Britton Christian Church double as classrooms during the day in Northern Oklahoma City. Dim lights hum over stained-brown carpet and white folding tables where a handful of students sit with worksheets and pencils.
It's like most grade school classrooms. Students raise their hands and ask to go to the bathroom, are scolded when they stop paying attention, and form cliques with fellow classmates during breaks. But these students are not children.
About 10 functionally illiterate adults come to basic skills classes at this church from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. It's a Department of Human Services program that provides Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Students are educated in basic skills and are required to reach a certain amount of hours in class to receive a paycheck.
Students are in these classes for months, sometimes years, until they pass a number of academic assessments that allow them to pursue further education or job training. It's Roberts' last chance to stay a step ahead of her children.
“This is where I need to start,” Roberts said. “If I didn't, I would not be here.”
There's no simple answer to how or why Roberts ended up in her mid-20s with an elementary education. She said there was a time when words and numbers came easier, but somewhere in her life, the simple things became difficult.
An Oklahoma City native, she is the youngest of 15 of her father's children, 14 of whom are half-siblings. Until Roberts was 5 she grew up in an abusive home. The vague memories she has of the violence stained her emotional development.
“It gave me trust issues,” she said. “It got to the point where I felt like I didn't know what love was when it came from a relationship because of what I experienced.”
After her parents divorced, she can't remember a time when her mother read to her. Education wasn't a priority.
“I know it would have made a big difference,” she said. “Learning comes from home first. If I would have had it before I went to school, I would have known what I was walking into. I would have known to listen, pay attention.”
Throughout her education, Roberts took lab classes to help with her learning deficiencies, and graduated high school in 2005. She was 3 months pregnant when she accepted her diploma. College wasn't a possibility.
She was quiet, but not shy.
When Roberts walked in for her first day of TANF classes on June 28, she didn't go out of her way to talk to fellow students, but joined conversation when asked. She carried a pink plastic binder, and over the first week, filled it with assignments and lessons.
There is no judgment inside these walls, no shame. Every person has her own reason for being here, but many stories are similar. A poor upbringing, an unlucky break, a medical condition; those situations led to poor decisions, and those decisions led to a lack of education.
There's a cast of characters in the class — the joker, the whiner, the mid-lesson sleeper. Roberts is the optimist.
“It's hard, but I don't think about it like that,” she said. “I try to be positive about everything. Me being negative about it doesn't do anything but stress me out.”
Her demeanor helps, but that doesn't make her learn any quicker.
During a spelling session in early July, a teacher gives students words to spell out to the class. Roberts' word was pawn.
With her left hand palmed on her forehead, she sounded it out to the class.
A teacher corrected Roberts and she nodded her head accordingly.
One word down. One million to go.
Roberts will have trouble reading her own story.
The words will appear backward in a newspaper, and the glow of a computer screen will make her feel dizzy. She said in her early 20s, she began feeling symptoms of dyslexia. In 2009 she started having epileptic seizures.
The combination of medical conditions makes Roberts suffer from blinding headaches from time to time, and she said her memory has also declined.
“I've been hit in the head more than most people,” she said.
Growing up, spats with close and extended family members resulted in a number of head injuries. It got to the point where she had amnesia and struggled to relearn her ABCs.
Roberts combats this with medication, but the only way to get past it for her educational growth is repetition.
“Day by day, I'm doing the best I can,” she said. “But I'm the type of person that has to see, hear and do it, just to comprehend it.”
By Roberts' third week of classes, she felt the progress.
“I get to the point where I'm sitting there clapping,” she said. “It's a good feeling.”
She's not even close to her end goal, but she knows what she wants — a vocabulary that gives her freedom. She wants a college degree, maybe something in social work, so she can help others.
These days, she sits in the doctor's office, nodding her head when she doesn't understand the medical terms. When she gets an important letter in the mail she can't read, she'll call the phone number listed on the page or call her mom for help. Job applications are also difficult. She can't always memorize or guess what information goes in which box.
“For someone to come and talk to me and I can comprehend everything they say to me, I would love for that to happen,” Roberts said. “Big words, words I've never used before, I would love that.”
Give her a novel, and she might make her way through the pages, understanding what was happening. But take those individual words and dissect their meaning, spelling and pronunciation? That's where it gets tricky.
“I feel like a challenge for me at this time is pretty much my spelling, trying to remember my nouns and pronouns,” Roberts said. “That right there is not clicking as fast as I wanted it to.”
But that's not the only issue.
On a Monday of a mid-July heat wave, she didn't show up. Two more days passed, and she was still absent. Sure, she had called in with reasons to miss, but this is how it usually starts.
All too often, this is how stories of failure begin.
Barbara Griggs has been teaching TANF classes for 21 years. Kay Walls has for eight. They come to work every day knowing their message won't always work.
Walls estimates that only one in six students will graduate from the program to be placed in some sort of job training or continue on to college.
“It's very difficult to handle when you're not prepared,” she said. “When students feel like they're trapped, then they have issues that interfere with learning. And they can come in with a closed mind.”
They've dealt with the worst — wanted felons, gang members and abusive parents. But some come here after the education system has failed them.
“In my time span, I've heard lots of stories, some that are just unreal,” Griggs said. “One girl had told me that she was in lab class, not in a metropolitan area, and her class consisted of going to the teacher's house and cleaning it.”
But they've also seen the best — the man who wrote at a kindergarten level who now works for a cab service, the woman who couldn't read who now works full-time at Walmart and one man in this summer's class who has graduated. He's just waiting for a spot in job training to open up.
It's the success stories that keep them sane and coming back for more each day. For Walls, the ripple effect of a person's education can be what is most important.
“We must intervene for the children,” she said. “We can help the adults, but I think helping the kids is the best approach to prevent this from happening.”
But to succeed, students must show up every day, especially those who suffer from medical conditions that hamper their progress. So when Roberts missed three days, it was troubling.
How long does it take for Walls to worry after a student starts missing class?
“I'm worried day one,” she said. “One minute they're not here is detrimental.”
Back in class
On Thursday, Roberts was back in class.
Plumbing problems at her home meant waiting hours on end for a plumber and filling up water jugs at her mother's house. She knew it hurts missing class, but her family comes before everything else.
Roberts called herself a “homebody.” She'd rather listen to music and take her kids to the park than go out on a Friday night. Her sons, Coreyontae, 3, and Marcus, 4, share the same father. Her daughters, Martina, 5, and Chasidy, 7, share another.
Neither father is part of her family life.
“I pray every day,” Roberts said. “Yeah, it's hard, but I'm blessed.”
When class gets tough and the day seems long, she misses her kids who sit in day care during the summer months. When she's in a bad mood, she said she'll try to hide it from her kids when she gets home, but they always know.
They'll play a joke or surprise her to make Mom laugh.
“When you see a person give all their trust and love, I feel like they give me a lot,” Roberts said. “They give me a lot that I never received.”
But love alone won't be enough to ensure her kids will be successful when they leave home.
“I know they will have a better life, but for all that to start, it has to start with their education,” Roberts said. “It has to start with my education. I want better for them at this point.”
Working with words
With 10 minutes left in an afternoon session, Roberts, who has hit her one-month mark of classes, is one of seven women. The class is restless. The sound of laughter and side conversation is paired with straws popping on ice.
Ms. Walls sits at the front of the room and gives the last assignment.
Spell the word. Sound it out. Give the definition. Use it in a sentence.
From left to right, the students recite to the class. They smile when they get a word they know. They whine that it's time to go home when they don't.
Roberts gets her word wrong every time.
Civilization. Doesn't know.
Evergreen. No idea.
Parallel. It has something to do with parking.
She's missed all three and it's almost time to go. Another student gets a word.
Ascend. The student doesn't know it, so Walls offers it to the class.
“Does anyone know what ascend means?”
No one answers. Conversation and giggling drowns out the question and the other students are already thinking about their next cigarette in the parking lot. Roberts looks at her blue sheet of paper, ascend, scribbles something down and looks up.
“To advance or go upwards?” She asks.
No reply. Ms. Walls' attention was on two students who won't quiet down. Roberts tries again.
“To advance or go upwards?”
Still nothing, it's too loud. Minutes later the class is given permission to leave and Roberts is the last student left in the room. She pushes in two chairs left out by other others, picks up her pink binder and turns the corner out the door.
She'll repeat the words she missed today inside her head until they stick, and tomorrow, she'll run into a dozen others that look backward in her mind. But that's why she's here.
Ascend: To advance or go upward. That's exactly right.
When students feel like they're trapped, then they have issues that interfere with learning. And they can come in with a closed mind.”