Prodded by granddaughter, Nana learns to read

Connie Toomer (left), now never too far from her dictionary, receives tough love and encouragement from April Parker, a volunteer tutor at the Trident Literacy Association. The two have become good friends.

A 3-year-old's question touched Connie Toomer's soul.

Aneesa, her granddaughter, innocently asked, "Nana, why don't you know?"

"That just got to me," Toomer said. "You want to be able to help raise them."

Aneesa had no idea that her Nana couldn't read. Toomer needed help, but embarrassment had kept her from asking for it. She resolved to stick with the Trident Literacy Association and learn to read.

The 48-year-old grandmother has improved her reading in the past five years from that of a third-grader to an eighth-grader. She just finished reading her first novel.

Toomer grew up in Charleston and attended North Charleston's public schools through the ninth grade.

She decided to drop out, and no one encouraged her to stay in school.

She found a dishwashing job, worked as a cleaning lady, married and raised two children.

Her husband valued education, and he made sure their children attended school.

But when they came home with questions, Toomer couldn't help them. She didn't know what to do.

She relied on her husband to help with homework and to read to them.

He encouraged her to earn her GED, and Toomer occasionally would return for classes. But she never stayed with them.

"Something always drove me away," she said. "I don't really like school. I never did like school."

Toomer doesn't know what prompted her to try the Trident Literacy Association, but she did. She found the push she needed to continue from her granddaughter. Aneesa asked her Nana to read to her, but Toomer couldn't.

Her granddaughter's simple request encouraged Toomer to continue learning.

Toomer, a shy, soft-spoken woman, also connected with April Parker, one of the association's volunteer tutors and a board member. In Parker, Toomer found the support she needed.

Her progress has been steady but sometimes painful. When Toomer feels frustrated, Parker pulls out the work that Toomer initially couldn't do. It's a breeze for her now.

Toomer spends two to three hours a day, two days a week at the association's North Charleston site working on her reading and math. She loves to read plays, and she and Parker take turns reading different parts.

Their relationship has turned into a strong friendship. Parker plans to raise money to take Toomer to Washington, D.C., to accompany her on a work-related trip.

The pair often slip into an easy, teasing banter. Parker doles out tough love and encouragement, and Toomer gives her advice and an open heart.

Parker has pushed Toomer out of her comfort zone. They've gone to the movies and to restaurants, and Parker has watched her blossom.

Toomer has gained more than reading skills from working with Parker. She initially couldn't fill out a job application; now she has a resume and business cards promoting her cleaning business.

She couldn't find the United States on a map, but now she can point out countries across the world.

She didn't know how to use the Internet or write checks, and she's become adept at both. She's more likely to help others at the association, and she's learned how to write essays.

She even wrote a letter to her grandchildren about how much she loved them and what she wanted them to get out of life.

Toomer carries around a well-worn dictionary, and if she doesn't know a word, she looks it up. Her goal is to earn her GED, go to college and become a counselor to help others.

"I didn't believe in myself, but I'm beginning to believe in myself and have confidence in myself."