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The Phone Call, An Adult Learner Story

5 January 2016

Haniyyah is the Assistant Director of Communications at The Mayor’s Commission on Literacy. 

Today I received a phone call from a woman who wanted to get her high school diploma. On average, the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy receives between 350 and 400 phone calls a month from adults interested in post-secondary education opportunities. Some want to get their GED, some are looking for ESL classes, and some want to go to college or enter the workforce but need a little refresher in math or reading.

I started the conversation like I would any call, “Thank you for calling the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy, how may I help you?” The voice on the other line was a woman. I could barely hear her response because she sounded like she was on the verge of tears. After I asked her to repeat her name a few times, I said, “Don’t sound so discouraged,” and she broke down.

Without taking a breath, through her tears, she told me how she really wanted to get her high school diploma but things just didn’t go as planned.

We’ve all experienced a time in our lives when things didn’t go as planned, right?

Over and over she repeated that she didn’t want her GED, she wanted a high school diploma. She told me how she had been working so hard to get back on her feet despite a number of challenges—physical and mental disabilities, drug abuse, incarceration, the list went on for a while.

“I am just trying to do the right thing and doors keep closing in my face. I am just so tired,” she said. She continued to apologize, “Ma’am I know you don’t know me and I am so sorry to put all of this on you, it’s just that…” her voice faded as she tried to catch her breath.

So I paused for a minute, I thought about the times that I had been discouraged. I thought about how teachers can become students’ counselors or the most consistent adult in some childrens’ lives. I thought about how barbers and hairdressers can become counselors and confidants.

As the woman on the phone continued to apologize, I interrupted her and said, “Listen, I’m no counselor, I’m no psychologist, but I also don’t think it was an accident that I answered the phone when you called. It sounds like you have been through a lot. But what if you quit now? Then it’s all for nothing. The first thing you said to me was ‘I just want to get my education.’ Sure, you wanted to get your high school diploma – that was the plan, but sometimes we have to take a non-traditional route to get to our end goal. Right now, it might just be your season of ‘no,’ which tells me that your season of ‘yes’ is not far at all. I know it’s easier said than done, but don’t give up now.” I proceeded to explain to her how I could help her begin the process of obtaining her GED and how to take it one step at a time. I reminded her that it wouldn’t always be easy but it would absolutely be worth it.

You never know what kind of day people are having or how helpful you’re being just by taking the time to listen.

The unfortunate part, is that this woman’s story is just one of the many examples of the challenges adult learners face when they make the decision to go back to school. The easy part is explaining the process and getting them registered. The hard part? Keeping them encouraged. I charge each of you reading this to remember those moments when your plan took a detour. Remember how you didn’t necessarily have all the directions but you found your way. And as you find your way and overcome challenges (big or small), pour that encouragement and empowerment into the life of someone else.

To find out more about The Mayor’s Commission on Literacy’s volunteer opportunities, programs, services, and other ways you can impact the life of an adult learner visit

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