LAFAYETTE -- Every year at the Project Second Chance book club award dinner, known as "The Bookies," two vastly different worlds collide.
At the Lafayette Park Hotel on March 21, a subtle, searing truth was made evident once again -- the inability to read divides, and the ability to read unites.
Project Second Chance, the Contra Costa County Library's adult literacy program, invites one adult student and one well-known, celebrated author to be the evening's keynote speakers. The contrast in their stories is immediate, but the aftertaste is a revelatory, indestructible testimony to the bridging power of the written word.
From the outside, PSC student Gigi G. Siliezar and bestselling author Melanie Gideon could have been sisters. Both women are bright, articulate, shining examples of human health and ambition.
But Siliezar, as she revealed in a candid account, "hated school" and suffered from a misdiagnosed dyslexic disorder when school officials decided her reading difficulties resulted from being bi-lingual.
"They thought the problem was me, differentiating between English and Spanish," she said.
After apprenticing as a cosmetologist during high school, Siliezar passed the practical portion of the licensing test with flying colors. The written test stopped her in her tracks.
A Diablo Valley College program offered special accommodations and hope, but eventually, she was told her diagnosis was too unclassifiable. They gave her the PSC's phone number.
"It's been such a big difference," said Siliezar, now 28. "I'm reading chapters now."
Her only regret is that she didn't know about PSC earlier.
"It's a plus, being able to read. I'll have that license. I'm giving myself seven months to study," she said, in private comments after receiving the audience's prolonged applause. "With better reading, my possibilities are endless."
Gideon, author of three young adult novels; a memoir, and the just-released-in-paperback adult novel, "Wife 22," had also built a life based on hope and endless possibility.
"Writing changed my life when I was a kid. It was the one thing I was naturally good at," she said, in private remarks made before greeting the book club audience.
Thanking her husband of 20 years for going on the Internet at the age of 40 and buying the enormous, tinted-window, cattle-guard bumpered van with an exploding camper top that sparked her memoir, Gideon showed her comic, storytelling flair wasn't limited to her childhood or to the printed page.
"I went from ambivalence to hating that van," she said. "In my 20s, I'd been up for anything, but at 41, I wanted to stay at home with my books and my clicker."
Ironically, writing about her marriage (including hilarious accounts of mattress sharing, school carpool lines and ballistically inviting opposing Lacrosse team parents to "ling it on") jumpstarted her book tour travels.
NPR named "The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After" a Best Book of the Year, and "Wife 22" has sold publication rights in 19 countries and has been optioned for film.
"With 'Wife 22,' I was writing for hope. My marriage had flatlined. I wanted to go out and talk to people about their (relationship) war stories," she explained.
After realizing a friend would tell her anything, as long as it was anonymous, Gideon had an epiphany.
"What if an ordinary (woman) had the opportunity to anonymously confess her dreams, lusts and fears?" she asked.
She invented a character, "Wife 22," who responds to an online survey by sending increasingly intimate answers to "Researcher 101's" (unprinted) questions. Gideon's latest book inspired an "It was totally get-able!" review from one audience member.
Gideon has gathered more than 2,000 responses from people she has met on the book's promotional tour.
"I asked, 'What is your secret to a long-lasting marriage or relationship?'" she said. "But what I was really looking for was hope."
Finding laughter and community in the answers has softened her quest to find love's magic formula.
"I'm done with marriage," she announced, then laughed, realizing her husband might not welcome the news. "I mean I'm done writing about marriage -- he'll like that."
But she's not done reading, and neither is Siliezar, who battles the stigma she said still causes her pain. Having entered the speaker's circuit with style, and having earned the admiration of many, Siliezar and Gideon are now part of a sisterhood.