Teaching Them She Can Learn

Ida Rosen’s memory is kind of fuzzy in parts, except about Amelia.

That would be “Amelia Bedelia” by Peggy Parish, a series of books written for children from 4 to 8 years old.

They are Ida’s favorites, so far.

“No matter what she does, she does it backwards,” says Ida about Amelia. “That’s why it’s funny. She does it backwards.


“Remember the one with the hair?” Ida asks her friend, Mary Tame. “Oh boy!”

Mary remembers, that and much more.

Mary met Ida about three years ago, here at the V.I.P. Center, an adult day-care center in Santa Ana. Ida could not read at all then. Mary, a retired elementary school teacher, began showing her how and, in the process, she has enlarged both of their worlds.

“I’m so proud of you,” Mary tells Ida, who will be 79 in June. Mary, a widow, is 73 herself. She volunteers her time as part of Newhope Library’s literary program. She says Ida is a delight.


“There are others here who don’t read,” Mary says, lowering her voice a little as she looks around the room. People are knitting, or watching TV, or chatting among themselves.

“It takes courage to put your hand up and do it when no one else is.”

But before now, Ida rarely had a chance. Reading was always something that other people did; it was just another door that was closed.

Ida Rosen grew up in Chicago, the sixth of eight kids, the older of two girls. Her father, a carpenter, died when she was very young. Her mother was a dressmaker who did her sewing at home. Money was tight.

Today, people call Ida “developmentally disabled.” Back then, they used other terms.

“I didn’t have much schooling,” Ida says. “I got as far as the third grade. I had polio and I used to get these spells, on my hand. One day at school I fell down. Since then, I haven’t gone back. They just didn’t take me anymore.”

Ida’s sister, Annetta Dubins, who is 75, says it wasn’t quite like that. She says Ida had cerebral palsy because of an injury at birth. She suggests that polio may have stuck in her mind because they were in the era of FDR. Ida fell down, she says, during an epileptic attack.

“Back then, they didn’t have the provisions for people like my sister that they do today,” says Annetta. “They just called them crippled children and didn’t give them much attention at all.


“So my mother just kept her at home. It was better for her there. She learned from everybody at home. She would sit alongside my mother dressmaking. She’d listen to music. We’d read to her. She’s always been obsessed with trying to read, ever since she was a little girl.”

Ida lives in a boarding home nearby. A van drops her off here five times a week. Her sister comes on Saturdays; they take in a movie and have dinner out.

Ida has plenty of verve, often walking quite briskly even as she drags her left foot, which is in a brace. Her left arm is almost atrophied from lack of use.

She has never married, nor held a job. She lived with her mother and sister for most of her life. Ida doesn’t recall exactly when she moved to California, only that it was a while ago (1940), in the winter (Christmas Day), and that there was rain.

“She, my mother, my husband and I drove from Chicago,” says Ida’s sister, who lives in West Los Angeles. “It was a very wet winter here. We were lonely, but conditions in Chicago were not so good.”

The move, like everything else in Ida’s life, was part of somebody else’s plan. She says people have always told her what she was able to do. And Ida figured they must certainly know more about those kinds of things than she.

“I could never be the things that I wanted to be,” she says. “I wanted to do anything that I could not, to be a teacher, or anything. I wanted to work like everybody else could. But my mother knew that I couldn’t.”

So Ida is finally proving everybody wrong. She practices her reading, with Mary and by reading out loud at home. Somebody gave her two Joan Collins books, which she is hoping to get to one day soon. Newspapers, she hopes, won’t be far off.


Why is she doing it?

When I ask, Ida looks at me with an expression that says she is aghast at my ignorance. And I’m the one who has been through school.

“To learn!” she says.

Mary picks up “Amelia Bedelia,” and Ida starts to read, slowly, out loud.

Amelia, as usual, is doing silly things. She has hung out the light bulbs on the clothesline after her employer told her to turn out the lights.

And Amelia Bedelia put the lights out. So those things need to be aired out too. Just like pillows and babies. Oh, I do have a lot to learn.

Ida Rosen smiles. One day, you’ll get it, Amelia.

Ida knows that better than most.