Ezra Randall Jr. sat across the table from his tutor, Tom McGuire, pondering the answer to a question about how he happened to drop out of high school some 25 years ago.

“I walked in one door and walked out the other because I was constantly getting picked on and bullied and beaten on,” said Randall, now 41. “I got detention and stuff. I basically told the principal I was done.”

I met Randall at Literacy Volunteers Waterville’s annual celebration Tuesday afternoon at Waterville Public Library where about 30 board members, tutors, students and their family and friends shared stories and refreshments.

Randall, a tall, lanky, bespectacled man who looks like a young Alan Alda, said he is earning a high school diploma at Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education and expects to graduate next year at this time.

He has been working with McGuire, a literacy volunteer, about a year and a half.

“My Catholic Charities worker told me about Literacy Volunteers, and I didn’t know anything about it until she told me,” he said.

McGuire, 68, meets Randall every Thursday afternoon at the library, which is a convenient location, as Randall lives just across the street. They read, work on organizational skills, and McGuire helped him enroll in adult education. When Randall started in Literacy Volunteers, he was reading at an upper fourth-grade level and now is doing much better, according to McGuire.

“He’s really stuck with the program,” McGuire said. “He has shown marked improvement.”

McGuire got involved in Literacy Volunteers after retiring from 25 years in retail sales management. Before that, he was a teacher.

He not only walked Randall through the steps of enrolling in adult ed, he also attends the New Books, New Readers program with him. The program, sponsored by the Maine Humanities Program, provides reluctant or new adult readers with books and hosts book discussions, helping to instill in them a love for reading.

“I went to the first couple of adult ed U.S. government classes with him,” McGuire said of Randall. “He took hold after that, and he didn’t miss a class, and he finished that class with an 86 — and that’s a tough class.”

McGuire has a vested interest in Randall’s progress. He wants to see him succeed.

“I will stay with him until he gets his diploma. We are going to shoot for next June. He will be there, I assure you.”

A quiet and somewhat shy man, Randall says he wants to be able to read to his 3-year-old stepdaughter, and that is one impetus for working hard. Literacy Volunteers has helped him a lot in that respect.

“It’s a good place to go to if you have a problem reading or something. They’re the people to go to to get help to read better.”

Randall worked for many years in a lot of different jobs, including at a clothing store and delivering newspapers but had to stop at his doctor’s insistence.

“I have disc deterioration in my back. My doctor said you can’t ever go back to work again because if you move just right and that disc moves the opposite way, you’ll end up on your back and going to the hospital.”

At the next table over, Susan Dessert, 58, and her tutor, Joyce Thompson, 63, talked about their work together. Dessert, who has a learning disability, dropped out of high school many years ago and always has had difficulty reading. But Thompson, she said, helped her improve so much that she now is reading more books than ever and particularly loves reading cook books.

Thompson worked as a bookkeeper many years, retired and started with Literacy Volunteers a little more than four years ago as a way to give back, she said.

“It was very brave of Susan to go to these folks and ask for help,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t require any bravery on my part — it requires an ability to help her help herself. She’s got to do the work. It’s very rewarding to watch her succeed.”

Literacy Volunteers also works with Lawrence Adult Education in Fairfield and other educational resources to make connections for students.

Tutors and students at Tuesday’s meeting told stories to the larger group after Literacy Volunteers President Janna Townsend asked if anyone wanted to share. One woman said Townsend helped her learn how to read aloud to her son, and he finally is reading at grade level after having been two years behind. The woman now volunteers in schools to help children with reading and reading comprehension. Townsend also connected her with the library so that she can access books regularly, and now her son chooses his own books.

Board members thanked the tutors, and the tutors thanked them back. There was applause all around.

“Why do we teach reading?” Townsend asked the group. “We teach reading for a variety of things. So we can learn about the world and things that happen in it. To read rich and wonderful stories.”

Board members match students with tutors, assess student progress, attend community events, manage the office and maintain a budget, train tutors and organize a library in the office from which people can borrow books. They also gather rich stories of students and tutors, according to Townsend.

“Otherwise,” she said, “we’re in isolation, and nobody knows the beautiful things we do.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]