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Struggling student to bookworm

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Esther Zuill's house is stuffed with books.

At the moment, the 88-year-old is reading the Bible from cover to cover.

Folks who meet her today would be surprised to learn that books were her greatest nightmare during childhood.

“I never in a million years would have imagined myself becoming a reader,” said Ms Zuill. “I once spent an entire year trying to read a book, and I couldn't tell you to this day what it was about. Teachers didn't know what to do with me.

“I don't think anyone had ever heard of reading problems like dyslexia back in the 1940s. I don't know if that's what I had. I heard I was naughty so often I really took it to heart.”

As a result she hated school, and played hookey from the Bermuda High School whenever she could.

When she bothered to turn up, she was punished so often for her struggles she “spent more time standing outside the classroom door than inside”.

But through perseverance, she did eventually learn to read. “In my teens I decided I wanted to be an occupational therapist,” said Ms Zuill. “With what I'd been through, I just wanted to help children in any way I could.”

She was erroneously told she needed to study nursing first so at 19, she spent a year floundering in a programme in the United States.

“I had a teacher from the deep south and I didn't understand a word he said,” she said. “He would write something on the board, and then rub it off before I could write it all down. I was too bashful to say hang on. I would do it now, but not then.”

She quit after a year and went home to regroup. A year later she was studying teaching and home economics. Finally, she'd found her niche.

She graduated in 1953, and taught students at Whitney Institute, Cavendish, Saltus and the Bermuda High School.

Always, she had a soft spot for the children who were struggling.

“I often told the children, if you don't understand something, just let me know. You might as well, I'll know anyway.”

In the early 1980s, she was teaching primary three at BHS. Her parents, Allan and Lilla Zuill, were becoming increasingly frail.

“I was having to get them up in the morning, go to school to teach, come home at lunch get them down for a rest and then go back to school.

“I was always worried about them. One day I came home and my mother was on the floor. She had a big cut over her eye and her glasses were broken.”

So in 1981, Ms Zuill left BHS.

“I'd taken a summer reading course at the Reading Clinic and learnt so much,” she said. “They called me and asked me what I was doing. I said I was climbing the walls.”

She began a new chapter in her life, tutoring out of her home.

“At the time the Reading Clinic was in Warwick and I just wouldn't have been able to get there,” said Ms Zuill, who still lives in the same house on Middle Road in Smith's that she grew up in.

Eventually, she tutored independently.

“I had the training,” she said. “I have taught children from every school on the island. I didn't have to advertise, they came to me by word of mouth.”

She always made a point to tell her students about her own childhood reading struggles.

“I tutored one boy when he was a teenager,” she said. “At that age it wasn't the in thing for boys to do, so he wouldn't stick with it.”

But when the boy was 50, he came back to her to try again.

“I said if you do exactly what I tell you, I guarantee you'll be able to read,” she said. “He came religiously.”

She was able to move him from a grade three reading level to grade eight.

“He had to stop because he had to save some money to buy a new car. He needed that to get to work. He was a very good painter.”

Today, she's only “semi-retired”. “I thought I had retired,” she said, “but a lady came to me and asked me to tutor her boys this summer. So that's what I will be doing.”

She occupies herself with puzzles and quilting and her pets: three cats and a German shepherd.

“I never got married,” she said. “I've always preferred being footloose and fancy-free.”

She loves technology and is particularly proud of her smart phone.

“I joined Facebook to keep in touch with my former students,” she said. “I have found quite a number of them on there.”

• Lifestyle profiles senior citizens in the community every Tuesday. To suggest an outstanding senior contact Jessie Moniz Hardy: 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com. Have on hand the senior's full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

Esther Zuill making a call on her smart phone (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
The ultimate read: Esther Zuill reading the Bible
Esther Zuill reading the Bible (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Avid reader: senior Esther Zuill still tutors young students

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Published May 09, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 09, 2017 at 8:46 am)

Struggling student to bookworm

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