lferd Williams, 69, joins two dozen first-graders huddled around teacher Alesia Hamilton’s rocking chair at Edison Elementary School in St. Joseph, Mo. As she points to words in an Itsy Bitsy Spider book, Williams sounds out each one along with the other students.
“Reading is awesome,” he says, his grin lighting up the room. “It’s a new world to me.” Though designated a volunteer parent by the school, Williams has a special place in the classroom where he keeps his backpack, journal and his favorite books. On the wall, behind him, is his framed motto, “I think anyone could learn to read if they wanted to.”
Williams, who missed out on school as a youngster to help work his family’s rural Tennessee farm, has become part of the class. During their morning ritual, he and his classmates greet each other with hugs and handshakes. In the circle when they sing the “Hokey Pokey,” he “shakes it all about,” too.
When the class divides into pairs to practice reading books, kids run to be his partner. “We sat by each other and read books together,” says fellow student Leah Bauer. “If he said a word wrong, I said what it was; then he says it the right way.”
Williams has attended Hamilton’s morning reading classes since 2006, at last fulfilling his mother’s dream. “She prayed, ‘Lord, enable all my children to go to school,’” he says.
He was first drawn to Hamilton’s class when he walked a friend’s children 12 blocks to and from the school. Waiting for dismissal, Williams stood outside Hamilton’s classroom, hearing her call each child “my friend” as they went through their lessons. “In two years, I never heard her treat a kid bad,” Williams says. “I thought, ‘This is a person who could teach me to read.’”
In May 2005, he worked up the courage to ask for her help, and Hamilton began tutoring him afternoons during summer vacation. “We read picture books with one word on each page,” recalls Hamilton, of Savannah, Mo. (pop. 4,762). “By the time school started, he was feeling pretty confident. I asked him if he would be interested in coming to school.”
He agreed, and according to Hamilton, his presence has added much to the class. “He’s a huge role model,” she says. “He brings to us that love for learning everybody needs to have.”
Williams’ life experiences also are helpful when the class relates their reading to real life. After the class read a story on migrant farm workers, he told them what it was like to be a farmer and shared stories of harvesting crops as a youngster to help his family make ends meet.
Although he still has much to learn, Williams delights in his new basic reading skills. “I’m the biggest person in the world now that I know ‘Walk’ and ‘Do Not Walk,’” he says, referring to lighted instructions on pedestration crosswalk signs.
Hamilton’s devotion to her elder pupil extends beyond phonics. In 2006, she read that St. Joseph resident Tiffany Tant had attended Oprah Winfrey’s TV show and was given $1,000 to give away through various acts of kindness. Hamilton suggested Tant buy the devout Williams a children’s Bible and some other books. Tant did so, and eventually Winfrey asked the trio to appear on her show. Afterward, people all over the country sent books, clothing and money to help pay Williams’ utility bills. He was approached about a movie of his life, but declined.
“I didn’t come to school to be famous or be rich,” he says. “I come to learn how to read. This is the most important thing I ever did in my life.”
School principal Jennifer Patterson sees Williams as an inspiration to others. “He’s made a clear statement to the community: ‘You can do this. I did it,’” Patterson says. “It’s given people hope who’ve not had hope before.”
Williams may continue to provide hope to others as he looks to fulfill another dream.
“I’m going to college,” he says. “I’ve got a long way to go. But when you start something, you can’t quit.”