Maggie Curtain kept a secret for much of her adult life: she couldn’t read. But then LitNet was created | South Berkshire
LEE – Saul and St. Paul, they’re one, aren’t they? Newland Archer: a weakling or a victim? What price should Sethe pay to have the words âMost Belovedâ inscribed on his daughter’s gravestone?
Maggie Curtain, of Tyringham, ponders such questions these days because, well, she can.
This is the same Maggie Curtain who managed to graduate from the old Williams High School in Stockbridge in 1963 using the one and only skill she had honed.
âI learned to cheat,â she says.
She couldn’t read. Throughout her school years, she had a name for her dilemma: she called it “stupidity”.
It wasn’t until years later – many years later – that Lee’s educator Zoe Dalheim would provide Curtain with a specific term: “dyslexia,” a disorder that involves difficulty learning to read or interpret. words, letters and other symbols. Dyslexia does not affect general intelligence.
âBelieve me, Maggie is extremely brilliant,â said Dalheim, who co-founded what is now called South Berkshire Literacy Network, a Lee-based non-profit organization that offers free one-on-one tutoring sessions for adults.
This year LitNet celebrates its 30th anniversary. One of his first student-tutor pairings was Curtain and Andrew Pincus, of Lenox. They continue their reading adventure to this day in a weekly reading group, now joined by Dalheim.
Today’s educators have an understanding of dyslexia, how to spot it and how to adapt to it. But in Curtain’s day that was not the case. As a child, she had learned by heart how to spell her name. She had memorized some words. She knew the ABCs, but she didn’t know how to pronounce each letter.
She kept it all to herself. Nobody knew. Not his three siblings, not his parents. It wasn’t until years later that it appeared that his father, also a machinist, had undiagnosed dyslexia, just like his grandfather. Dyslexia, considered a neurobiological disease, can be passed on from a parent.
So what was school like?
âHell,â Curtin said. Whenever the time came for her class to pick spelling teams, she was always the last chosen and the first to sit down. Each time each student took turns reading aloud, she had to decline. Her teachers thought she was just embarrassing.
She remembers how in high school staff posted an ineligibility list in each class of students whose grades were too poor to participate in extracurricular activities. His name was still on it.
“I thought my life was over”
His self-esteem? “Zero,” she said. But, they let her graduate. And after she graduated, she went straight to the paper mill, Sheaffer Eaton, Pittsfield. âAnd I took my mom with me so she could help me complete the application,â Curtain recalls.
She got the job. Eventually she met a man and they got married. They would not have children. Curtain, still unaware of dyslexia, had feared giving birth to a child who might suffer like her.
But, this factory job that she had, she loved it. She was working on a machine. Switches, levers, buttons, the daily routine, these were things she understood that didn’t draw attention to the secret she kept. But, out of the blue, after working at Sheaffer Eaton for 25 years, the company closed.
âI thought my life was over,â she said.
In fact, it had just started. As the employment agency tried to persuade her to take secretary jobs, she finally said, “I can’t read.”
It was then that she met Dalheim, a specialist whose life mission at the Pittsfield Adult Learning Center was to understand why some struggling adults shy away from educational opportunities. Typically, as was the case with Curtain, it was to avoid the shame and humiliation of an undiagnosed learning disability.
Dalheim asked Curtain to take an IQ test.
âHis IQ was very high, higher than mine,â recalls Dalheim. But, all the same, Dalheim determined that Curtain’s reading skills were at a seventh grade level, and they were only elevated because Curtain had successfully memorized words through visual memory. She had little ability to correlate sounds with letters. She recognized, for example, the word âhot,â but if you were to remove the ât,â those two remaining letters could just as easily have been hieroglyphics.
For two years starting in 1989, one hour a day, Dalheim and his colleague Peg Smith worked with Curtain, teaching him the sounds of vowels and consonants.
âThe day I had the breakthrough that I was going to be able to read, I cried for a long time,â Curtain said. âThe pain of all these years had to be released. “
Enter Andy. In 1991, Dalheim and Smith launched LitNet. At the time, Pincus, a classical music writer (he writes for The Eagle, among other publications), had lost a lot of work after the recession of the late 1980s.
âWhile I was looking for something to do, LitNet came into being,â he explained. “Since work was slow to come back and I had made a living with words, I decided to give back by helping someone else with words.” He volunteered. Dalheim just had the right person for him.
He and Curtain hit it off pretty early on.
At first, Pincus chose books based on a combination of simplicity and quality. This included “Hiroshima” and “The San Luis Rey Bridge”. It was slow in the early years. Certain words would blow up the curtain, such as “though”, “through” and “thought”.
Then and still today, they meet every week after having read only twenty pages or more. Pincus asks Curtain to write a summary for each week’s reading and has him read the summary aloud. And so begins the discussion.
âI cannot express in words the love and respect I have for Andy – all the time he has given me to improve my life,â Curtain said.
Pincus ultimately encouraged Curtain to apply for a job at the Country Curtains warehouse in Lee. She did and happily worked on it until her retirement.
A changing relationship
Their relationship went from tutor-student to one of the other readers – a reading group. They have read about 50 books in 30 years. In recent years, Dalheim has joined the book group. She now accommodates him at her place.
âMaggie often understands things that I don’t understand,â Pincus said.
They read “Anna Karenina”. They continue to question Newland Archer’s motives in “The Age of Innocence”. Somewhere along the line, Pincus asked the big question: do you want to read the Bible? It was the dream of his life. Yes, the two of them spent two and a half years reading the Bible from cover to cover.
âI listened to people tell me what the Bible says,â Curtain said, âand now I can say what the Bible says. “
Other favorite books? “The news of the expedition.”
âI tell people, you just have to go through the first 100 pages,â Curtain said. âYou have to make sure they’re on their way to Canada.
“A mother’s love, what she’s going through -” said Curtain, marveling at the horror endured by the former slave, Sethe. They are now rereading it, this time with Dalheim.
Curtain realized before Pincus that the main character, Hanna Schmitz, suffered from a disability that explained it all: Hanna was illiterate.
âIt was obvious,â Curtain said.