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Words open her world

Teachers in Haiti didn't want to waste time on her. At 49, she is getting the basic education, and confidence, that eluded her.

Published October 22, 2004

CARROLLWOOD - When Maud Sanon needed to write a check for $1,000, she asked a 7-Eleven clerk for a bottle of Thousand Island dressing. It was the only way she could spell the word.

After failing the written part of her driver's exam six times, Sanon memorized the sequence of letters for the correct answers and passed on her seventh try.

Before she started learning to read or write, she couldn't travel far from home or work, decipher a restaurant menu, study her Bible, fill out a job application or check a bank statement.

"When you don't know how to read, you always pay attention to what people say," says the 49-year-old woman, who recently completed her first essay, a two-paragraph summary of her life goal. It took her three weeks to write and polish it.

Sanon was born in Haiti with a cleft palate. She couldn't speak clearly. There were only two schools in her village of Fort Liberte, and teachers there didn't want to waste time on her. She dropped out and grew up never knowing how to read or write.

She came to the United states for work in 1983. Two years ago she decided to fix her cleft palate. The operation gave her new resolve to conquer what had taunted her.

Thanks to the Hillsborough Literacy Council, Sanon is learning to read and write.

"Now I can read what I see, and I don't have to hear it to know what it says," Sanon says. "But a long time ago, I couldn't do that."

She meets her tutor, Carol Bockenek, one night a week at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library on Bearss Avenue after working all day as a housekeeper in Avila. Sometimes Sanon tires, and they end the lessons early. Other days, they make so much progress they stay late.

Some tutoring sessions involve no tutoring at all.

They spend hours just talking to each other about life. Sanon knows all about her tutor's family. Bockenek knows things about Haiti that she never read in newspapers.

"I'm watching her blossom," says Bockenek, 58. "What a joy to have a part in that. It's like being a mother and watching a child become what they can be. It's not that Maud is a child, but it's that same wonderful feeling of watching the world open to her because of what she now knows."

* * *

Sanon didn't tell anyone she planned to have surgery. For the longest time, she says, "it was between me and God.

"The night before, I called my mother and father in Fort Lauderdale, and they told me it could be a mistake," she says. "Before leaving the house at 8 a.m. for the hospital, I called my husband. He discouraged me too."

Both of her adult daughters, though, encouraged Sanon to choose the surgery, hoping it would improve her life.

Sanon entered St. Joseph's Women's Hospital on Aug. 9, 2002, a Friday, and left the following Sunday.

Her pastor's wife, Elizabeth Lubin, filled out the paperwork and drove Sanon home from the hospital.

"She's a good lady," Lubin says of Sanon. "She tries hard. She does many things in the church."

The operation a success, Sanon's doctor sent her to speech therapy. The therapist asked Sanon to read some words on a piece of paper. Sanon swallowed her humiliation and despair. She admitted she could not read.

"She asked me if I want to learn," says Sanon, who rents a one-bedroom house off Cypress Street. "I said, "That's my dream.' She gave me the literacy number and I called the lady."

Nilda Miller, executive secretary for the Hillsborough Literacy Council, took the call. Miller, from Panama, remembers crying as she listened to Sanon's story. It reminded her of her brother, also born with a cleft palate. Her brother was 13 when he had surgery.

"My mom would send him to buy meat at the market in Panama and they made fun of him," Miller says. "They called him mean names and it brought back those memories. She had to face the same things because nobody wanted to be bothered with her."

There were no tutors available when Sanon called. Miller went to Bockenek - her boss - and said this was a case that couldn't wait.

Bockenek, literacy coordinator for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System, decided she would volunteer to tutor Sanon herself. Sanon is Bockenek's first and only student. They met two years ago at the Carrollwood library.

"I was nervous," says Bockenek, who lives in Carrollwood Village with her husband, Jim, a stockbroker. "I hadn't done this before. I was waiting in the lobby on a bench. She walked in half-smiling and asked if I'm me. She said, "I don't know how to read.' I said, "That's why I'm here.' "

Though from different worlds, the two women could relate to each other.

Both were mothers with two grown children.

Bockenek loved to read and Sanon had a burning desire to learn.

"We started with the letter B and a picture of a bird," Bockenek remembers. "Maud is a smart woman. You can't get where she's gotten in life and raise two children and not have smarts. She just didn't have education."

Theirs is a relationship of trust and mutual admiration.

After they'd been meeting for about a year, Bockenek told Sanon how much she enjoyed the beach.

Sanon told Bockenek she didn't know how to get there.

"So I put that in the back of my mind and the next time we met, I brought a map," Bockenek says. "We opened it up and she had never looked at a map before. I showed her where the library was. Showed her her street. When she saw her street, a light bulb lit up. She traced her home to the library to work and kept going back to her house on the map.

"It was so cool. It was like her discovering the Rosetta Stone," the key that unlocked the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

"I innocently brought the map," Bockenek says. "I had no idea it would be such a significant moment in her life, when she realized she could read a map and what maps are all about."

* * *

Sanon dreams of becoming a certified nursing assistant. She wants to help people who are sick or disabled. She must pass a standardized test to get certified.

"I got the books already," she says. "I study them now. I know people who take the class and don't need the books anymore. I read them. I try to understand. So when I'm ready to take the class my mind is more open to what they say."

In the first essay Sanon wrote with her own hand, she describes her ambition:

In January 2003, I started reading class. Now I am in Book 3. I have learned cursive writing which is very exciting for me. I have a lot more to learn. I am reading pretty well, but I need to work on my writing.

I know I have to get better at writing so I can pass the test to get licensed. I will keep meeting with my tutor. I want to get a class at a high school to get better at writing. I will make my dreams come true.

Sometimes Sanon arrives late to tutoring because of her job. She always finds Bockenek sitting on the bench in the library lobby, waiting.

"At first, I was so embarrassed," Sanon says. "I don't understand nothing, and she says, "Take your time. You're going to learn.' She read for me. She read over and over and I understood. By the second week, I was reading for myself."

Sitting at her kitchen table, Sanon studies her reading material, pronouncing the syllables out loud. She practices her writing in slow, careful strokes and patiently hones her ability to find words in the dictionary to check her spelling.

She makes mistakes but no one is around to hear. Her husband lives in Fort Lauderdale.

She tries not to put herself down as she once did. She knows she can fill out a job application and get job offers. She did so last month, just for kicks, adding a night shift to her day work. She works at the University of South Florida cafeteria from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., then goes to her day job in Avila at 8 a.m.

Armed with her new skills, Sanon can travel alone to her doctor's office and fill out the necessary forms. She can read little stories to her 4-year-old granddaughter, who also lives in Fort Lauderdale.

She knows she has only herself to please now.

Herself and Bockenek.

Above all, she doesn't want to disappoint her tutor.

"She don't get paid (to tutor)," Sanon says. "If she sacrifices her time for me, I can't let her down. I have to push myself for her. I don't want her to get tired with me like the teachers in Haiti. So, I push myself to let her see I really want it. I really need it."

Bockenek says she's committed to working with Sanon for the long haul.

"I will never lose patience with her," Bockenek says. "I know she works hard and I know her goals. It will be a very satisfying day when she becomes a certified nursing assistant. I'll be as proud as when my children graduated from college."

- Tim Grant can be reached at 813 269-5311 or at

Want to help?

The literacy program needs volunteers. Currently, 138 tutors work with adults throughout the county, but 124 students await tutors. Tutors are asked to commit for a year after their training, which takes eight to 12 hours.

Visit or call 273-3650.

[Last modified October 21, 2004, 13:21:19]

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