“How ya doing, how ya doing?” says the giant as he lumbers into my cramped San Francisco apartment, extending his right hand.
“Gre—at. You must be Mike.”
At 6 foot 5, 250 pounds, his shaven head as shiny as a mirror, Mike Franklin is a man who commands attention. He’s the kind of guy I might not want to meet in a dark alley –except for that friendly, beaming smile of his that sets me at ease. I like Mike immediately. Matched up thanks to the San Francisco City Library’s “Project Read” adult-literacy program, Mike and I would get together at my place every Tuesday afternoon from 3-5 pm for the next two years. During this time, I taught him about words, language and grammar. He taught me about life. It was a good trade off.
Although both in our late 30’s at the time, Mike and I had followed radically different paths in our lives. Growing up in the white, middle-class suburbs of Millbrae, California, 20 miles south of San Francisco, I attended a well-known college, earned a degree in literature, and even taught English in Japan for a while. By contrast, Mike — an African-American male from the mean streets of San Francisco – had barely graduated from high school. After bopping around from job to job, he finally settled down as a furniture mover. Happily married, a home owner with two lovely daughters, Mike had done well for himself — in spite of the fact that he couldn’t, in fact, read. After denying his condition for years, Mike had finally swallowed his pride and joined the Project Read program, hoping it might help him get ahead at work (and in life).
During our first few months together, Mike and I reviewed phonics. We read stories together. We did writing projects. But Mike’s progress was slow. For some reason, the words in our book kept moving around on page like squirming, wiggly worms. As you might have guessed, Mike was dyslexic, a condition that sadly I knew virtually nothing about.
My salvation came in the form of a little paperback called “The Gift of Dyslexia” by Ronald Davis. It suggested that dyslexics have very special minds that view things essentially in 3D. It’s as if their brains are operating tiny helicopters, circling around their field of vision, taking rapid-fire photographs of whatever they’re focusing on. According to Davis, this unusual characteristic of mind can be an absolute gift, especially for artists, mechanics and yes, movers. But not, alas, for someone trying to read & write. Davis recommended a variety of special techniques for dyslexic readers, including among other things, sculpting words out of clay to render them 3-D and thus easier to comprehend.
Thanks to the book and Mike’s hard work, we started to make progress.
Reading, however, was only half of our relationship. If I was the “teacher” for the first hour of our sessions, it was Mike who taught me in the second half. During this time, we would just talk — about life, love, current events, philosophy. Mike is truly an old soul, with wisdom radiating out of him. I may have known a lot about how to read and write, but Mike clearly knew how to live. Some examples:
–“So Mike, what’s the secret of a long, happy marriage like yours?”
“Dave, you think I always like my wife, June? Heck, we fight all the time. But every Friday, I bring her flowers. I don’t always like June, but I always love her.”
–“So Mike, it sounds like you have a complex relationship with your sister, Doreen.”
“Ah, she’s all right, although she does complain sometimes. One day, I just got sick of it. I told her, “Doreen, don’t ask any questions, just get in the truck with me.” I take her out to Hunter’s Point, the worst neighborhood in the City, and point at a family living in a cardboard house. “Doreen, those people got something to complain about. Not you!”
After two years of working together, Mike’s reading was really coming along. In fact, his supervisor was telling him how impressed he was with Mike’s latest work reports. He was even up for a promotion! And then, suddenly, Mike stopped showing up for our sessions. I didn’t see or hear from him for several weeks. What had I done? Did I say something to offend him?
Finally, Mike called me up on the phone:
“Dave, I want to take you out the House of Prime Rib.”
“Uh, sure Mike.”
We had a nice steak dinner that night — we talked about our lives. We shook hands and wished each other well. It was a good time. I never saw Mike again after that.
“What, he left without even saying thank you! How ungrateful” you might think.
That’s not the way I look at it. Mike wasn’t a gushy guy. That final dinner was Mike’s typical, low-key way of saying, “Let’s not make a big deal about this. We both got what we needed. We both enjoyed ourselves. It was a fair exchange. Time to move on.”
I do miss Mike. I hope he’s doing well. I have no doubt that he is.
Mike was my mentor. Even if he wasn’t 6 foot 5, I’ll always look up to him.
Who has been YOUR unofficial mentor? Who have YOU helped out, only to discover that you received as much or more in the exchange?
P.S. For more evidence about the benefit of giving, check out this TED talk by my friend, Cathy Armillas.