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The Comeback Kids: Conquering the Learning Curve

January 9, 2007

Washington D.C. – The process of learning is never-ending. For some lucky ones it means college, graduate studies, on-the-job training. But for others, continued education just means looking in the mirror one day, admitting to not knowing how to read and with humility choosing to go back to school.

In the basement of a red-brick building in Northwest Washington D.C., a small classroom is the stage where this story of adult learning unfolds. With colorful posters of words and simple syllables, these pastel walls witness an interaction not dissimilar to what you would find in first grade.

The teacher hands out sheets of paper with spelling exercises, the students take turns to read the words out loud. They learn the relations between sounds and letters. They learn to use suffixes and prefixes and the difference between an adverb and a noun. To make class time more fun and engaging games and a small competition are organized, and the instructor gives out candies to the winners.

The only difference between this classroom and any other elementary school classroom is that, sitting at these desks are not children but adults with families, some with jobs and most a tumultuous life behind them.

This basement is home to the Washington Literacy Council, a non-profit organization that was founded in 1963 by literacy pioneer Frank Laubach, a former missionary who had spent some time in Pakistan. There, he had witnessed the political isolation suffered by those who could not read or write.

Returning to the United States, Laubach decided to put his experience to use by creating a grassroots organization.  “The idea was that people who were literate, well-read, could teach other people who did not know how to read,” Elisabeth Liptak, Executive Director for the Council, explains.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, in 2003 about 19% of the adult population in the United States is either entirely illiterate or possessed below-basic literacy abilities, meaning that they could – at best – sign a form, or locate numbers to perform simple quantitative operations.

The bulk of this population, the national assessment indicates, is mostly in urban areas and mainly comprises of black males in their ‘40s and ‘50s who live on unemployment or disability benefits, or hold low-paying, unskilled jobs which does not require filling out an application form.

They suffer, for the great part, from learning disabilities that were never diagnosed when they were growing up. Dyslexia is the most typical, often caused in these cases by environmental factors. Many illiterate adults grew up in households with no books and around other poorly educated people.

Disadvantaged in class due to their difficulties in reading, they were relegated to Special Education classes together with mentally-retarded and behaviorally challenged students.
The over-burdened school systems often used this route as an easy way of dealing with this problem and never managed to help them address their specific needs. “Many of our students remember that they entered Special Ed., but they could not describe to you any of their activities. It sounds as if Special Ed. was a room they were put in just to get them out of the way of normal children,” Nicole Lubar, Program Director here, complains.

This is the “identikit,” or the common factor among the students I visited as they were sitting in a class at the Washington Literacy Council, listening to the teacher explaining how to read the word “imaginative” out loud.

Kenneth is one such student. He walks with a stick and wears a knitted hat with stripes of yellow, green and orange. He is 67. He went to school as a child but had trouble adjusting and ended up “accidentally dropping out in 8th grade,” as he puts it.

He looks back at his youth and remembers how much he despised the idea of a regular monotonous office work. “People that worked, I thought they were damn fools.” He wanted the fast-track, easy money and the women that went along with it. Nobody warned him at the time that “nothing comes for free.”

It did not take long for Kenneth to become an alcoholic and a drug abuser. With 8th grade level education, he could only work at menial jobs at the sanitation department for the local government. I ask him about his family; “I had one,” he tells me. However his wife could not handle Kenneth’s erratic and disengaged lifestyle; “she wanted someone who could occasionally be with her,” he jokes. The couple split in the early 1980’s and Kenneth has not seen his daughter since.

His on and off bouts with drugs went consumed most of his adult life until the day when, charged with drug dealing, Kenneth was brought to court and the apartment where he lived was taken from him.

That incident marked a “new beginning” in his life. He joined a program for homeless people with alcohol and drug addiction problems and spent one year in West Virginia cleaning himself up.

This past October Kenneth officially graduated from the program. “I choose every day not to drink or do drugs,” he says. “That is what I do.” During his stay in West Virginia his drug counsel realized that Kenneth could not read or write and told him about the Washington Literacy Council. “I finally realized that I did not want to die a drug addict. I did not want to die an alcoholic. You gotta’ give yourself a chance.” Retired since 1986, Kenneth has been a regular here since he started. He also dedicates his time to participate in meeting for alcoholics and drug abusers, where he talks about his experience and how he has made it through.

David sits at the Council’s front desk and greets everyone who comes in. He is also a student here. Just like Kenneth he is African-American and has survived a rough upbringing. He grew up in the South and attended segregated schools in South Carolina in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. He suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia and since the very beginning he faced difficulties with reading and writing. His problems in class made him stand out.

David quickly became the target of the jokes of his classmates, who could read better than he did. Humiliated, and feeling inferior to the other children, David tried to find an area where he could be better than the others.

He quickly discovered that he could propel in cultivating a tough image. “I wanted to show them I could do something that they could not do, because they did something I could not do,” he tells me. He never complained when he was beaten, was not fearful of getting involved in fights and soon rose in the ranks among local gangs. Because of the behavioral problems that his troubles with reading caused, he was also regularly whipped by the principle of his school.

In Junior High, David’s mother sent him to Washington DC to live with two of his brothers, in the hope that better opportunities would be awaiting him. New to the neighborhood, David found himself again in the position of having to prove himself to the other kids. Once again, violence became his path to recognition, making him the leader of one of the most dangerous gang in Northeast Washington DC.

In a fight that the Washington Post labeled “the St. Francis massacre” due to the level of violence, David was stabbed twice and came close to dying. The District police, tracking his family in South Carolina, asked David to leave town and move back home.

David never enrolled in school again and never learned how to read or write. A few years later he was back in Washington working as a carpet installer. He soon met his wife-to-be, got married and decided to open his own business. The work soon took off, while David’s marriage suffered throughout its 12 years.

He never revealed to his wife the extent of his problem with literacy, however he had to bring her around everywhere and entrust her with all the paperwork of the business. He could not place orders by himself, or sign contracts; he could not even find his way to his clients’ residences, since he did not read street signs. “I could not even spell carpet,” he recalls. When his marriage finally fell apart, despite making good money David was forced to close down his business since he knew he could not carry on just by himself. He had to go back to work for another boss.

In 1994 a car accident forced him out of the carpet business altogether. Employment services advised him to look for office-type jobs. However, the task of applying for a job proved to be daunting. Whenever he was required to read or complete forms in employment lines, David made up excuses. “I don’t have my glasses with me today and I don’t see well enough;” or; “Someone is waiting for me in the car and they are in a rush, I have to go.” Finally David found the courage to confess his problem to his counsel, who re-directed him to the Washington Literacy Council 11 years ago.

David has never left and, a few years into his program, he was offered a position by the Council itself, as the representative of the students. As of today, David keeps taking classes, is preparing for his GED, and tours the country as a motivational speaker for adult literacy programs.

Elizabeth and Nicole have seen many stories resembling those of Kenneth and David. The Washington Literacy Council serves around 170 students at all times and thousands have stepped through its door in the past 40 years. It is estimated that it takes about 250 hours of instruction to get to a solid 6th-8th grade literacy level, which is sufficient enough to take part in GED-preparatory program.

That is why Elizabeth and Nicole are pushing to increase the number of hours students must spend at the Council each week, so that they can complete the training faster and before something comes in the way of their commitment. “Our students face several challenges, problems of persistence. They have problems of economic pressure, when suddenly a family member falls ill, or one of their children has a child that they cannot care for and they leave the baby with grandma,” Nicole says.

Students here also must deal with sudden unemployment, which leaves them unable to afford going to the Council. Sometimes they happen to find employment which requires them to start right away. “The kind of jobs that they get is not very flexible,” Elizabeth explains, “and the last thing they want to do is tell their employer that they cannot read and that they are attending our program. So the first thing that goes is our program.”

The Washington Literacy Council mostly uses one-on-one tutoring as the method of instruction, in accordance with founder Laubach’s saying “each one teach one”, where a student is paired up with a teacher with whom he meets a few times a week. Class interaction has been introduced recently as a way to motivate students to come to the Council more often. Participating in the activities create an important sense of community among the students; “When people come to us they think ‘I am stupid, I am the only person in the city who can’t read. I must be retarded.’ And then when they get in here they see others with similar history and self assessment who are intelligent, fun, lovely people and then they realize ‘it is not just me,’” Nicole highlights.

Counting on merely five paid staff members, the Washington Literacy Council only functions thanks to its volunteers, around 200 themselves.  Tutoring and classes are free. The Council does not receive any government money, federal or local, and relies on fundraising and donations. A small registration fee for students was introduced lately, mostly as a symbolic contribution to the Center that the students themselves asked to give. It is not required if one does not have the means to pay for it.

“When you can’t read, every day that you wake up you are living a lie,” says David. Adults who suffer from illiteracy try their best to keep their problem a secret. “You always find ways to camouflage the fact that you cannot read,” he explains, “because you believe that if someone finds out they will think less of you.” They become very creative and the tricks they use to hide their illiteracy are effective and inventive. “I always thought that a person who was well-educated would always be well-dressed. So I tried to always wear nice clothes, so that I could put myself in a position where I would not have to display my inability to do things,” David remembers. However strategies wear out, as well as physical strength, which illiterate adults must rely upon as the one ability that can help them find jobs and get them through life.  I ask David what he would say to someone who has the same problem he had; “My advice to anyone in the position where I was is to get help as soon they can and not wait until they are forced into it, come voluntarily. That physical ability is going to go away one day and you cannot do physical work until retirement age.”

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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