By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 24, 2014
Around the beginning of 2012, I saw in a flyer in a Durham, N.C., coffee shop. The shop was almost certainly Bean Traders, the Ninth Street establishment that has since been renamed Market Street.
That’s not important — what’s important is that the flyer was for the Durham Literacy Center, which was seeking volunteers to work as adult literacy tutors. I signed up for an orientation session, which I followed with a two-day training session with about a dozen other newbie tutors at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
I was initially matched with a student who was an ex-con. He lived somewhere in northern Durham County, and his trip to the center’s adult literacy classrooms — which at the time were situated in a church auxiliary building — required an hour or more of bus travel.
At our second meeting, I gave my student five dollars. That was the last I saw of him; apparently, he got a job that prevented him from taking lessons.
Soon after that, the center matched me with another man — a Durham native, then in his late 40s, whom I’ll call T. We’ve worked together ever since March 2012, with some interruptions for holidays, travel and other things that happen.
A few times a year, the center staff holds refresher seminars for tutors. (We use a program called the Wilson Reading System.) I went to one on Wednesday evening, and something funny happened.
The introductions ended up taking nearly an hour of the seminar, which was scheduled to last two hours. Each of the tutors stated her name (I was the only male tutor present), how long we’d been tutoring, a challenge we’d faced in our sessions with our students, and a method that had worked well in our tutoring.
One of the tutors was named Joy. She was a slender white-haired woman clad in a cream-colored turtleneck sweater and a dark jacket that seemed to be made of crushed velvet. When she sat down, she placed on the table before her a clear rectangular plastic container that was about the height of a hardcover book.
Once it came to be Joy’s turn to introduce herself, she went went through the items one by one. When she came to the last one, she reached for the box.
It was a word game called Syzygy. The box contains 304 letter tiles, and the rules seem to be relatively straightforward. Each player draws nine tiles; when someone says go, each player turns his or her tiles face-up. The first person to complete a miniature crossword puzzle wins.
As I recall, Joy said that her student enjoys forming words out of the Syzygy tiles. (I don’t think they actually compete against each other to build crosswords.)
Other tutors were intrigued by Syzygy, in part because it contains many more tiles than a game of Scrabble, which only contains 98 letters. (There are also two blanks; I believe Syzygy has some blank tiles as well.)
Someone — never fear, we’re getting to the funny part — someone asked Joy where she’d bought Syzygy. She couldn’t remember, although she said we could probably find it online.
And here’s where things started getting a bit odd.
Joy said that she has a poor memory, so she gets the same gifts for everyone every year. The group tittered.
I decided to jump in with my Finely Honed Comic Wit.
“Gee,” I said with a sour expression. “Thanks for the girdle, Joy. That’s very — thoughtful of you.”
My little joke was a hit.
That’s it. That’s the odd thing that happened.