The Prison of Illiteracy

Article excerpt

"It creates a lot of problems - getting a job, maintaining a relationship - you don't want your girlfriend to know you can't read," says David Clemmons, pulling me away mentally from the St. Regis Hotel where he, I and others have gathered for the Village Foundation's National Literacy Campaign Summit. Suddenly, I am on the streets of Washington's broken communities, examining adults I encounter for any telltale signs of their nonreading status. I search for the prison wall that restricts them, leaving them caught without windows, without visions, without a picture of life's possibilities. Illiteracy is a devastating terrain, escaped by sheer determination.

See for yourself: Mr. Clemmons was 15 when he first came to Washington from South Carolina; his mother sent him to live with an older brother. Things went awry when Mr. Clemmons started running with the wrong crowd. He was sent back to South Carolina only to return to the District in 1970. After working for years as an apprentice, in 1974 he started his own carpet-installation business. His wife served as his bookkeeper - and official reader. When the marriage ended, his business collapsed. He found a job with a furniture company. But employment there ended after an on-the-job accident, which proved a mixed blessing. In 1997, at 47, Mr. Clemmons realized he could no longer conceal his greatest handicap, using friends and relatives as his crutch. He went to the Washington Literacy Council for help.

Frankie Clarke, 56, a professional caterer, didn't graduate from high school until he was 21 years old. Randolph Hinton frequently had to stay out of school to work on the farm; when he returned from those absences, he couldn't gain the teacher's favor. At 14, he dropped out. Seeing a literacy poster on a transit bus, he decided at age 41 to learn to read. Rayve Washington, diagnosed with dyslexia, went through school without learning to read. When he worked at a restaurant, he used the pictures on cans to tell him what was inside; with frozen foods he peered inside the packages. When he became a cook, he took the menu home and his wife helped him memorize it. Finally, in 1990, he went to the Adult Skills Program.

Curtis Aikens, the host of the cable food show, "Pick Of The Day," and author of four books, says he, too, played "literacy charade": He memorized everything he heard in his high school class. On tests, he scribbled illegible answers and when the teachers asked him to explain, he simply repeated what he had memorized. This game got Mr. Aikens through high school and Southern University. He learned to speak correctly by watching television. One day, he saw an ad for the Marin County Free Library Literacy program. At age 26, he finally learned to read. …