MAXWELL:  When adults learn to read

4/13/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Mattie M. Mathis, 52, a janitor and St. Petersburg resident, has a dream: to read well enough so that she can read to her grandchildren and help them with their homework.

A 45-year-old owner of a local tree service wants to learn how to read and spell to avoid embarrassment when trying to fill out a bill of sale in a client’s presence and to be able to teach Sunday school.

Another St. Petersburg resident, 60, owner of a lawn service, is learning to read because, instead of having others complete his paperwork, he wants to write his own contracts, bid on jobs and measure job sites. Most of all, he wants to write his youngest daughter. He was unable to write to his other three children after they left home.

These residents, according to the U.S. Department of Education, are among an estimated 40-million other American adults who “are _ at best _ able to perform tasks involving “brief, uncomplicated text,’ ” given their poor reading skills.

Incredibly, the United States has the highest illiteracy rate among all industrial nations, and untold numbers of citizens, especially blacks and other ethnic minorities, suffer a lifetime of limited options, unfulfilled potential, embarrassment and fear.

Here in Florida, which has one of he nation’s highest numbers of poor readers, one of five adults _ 1.7-million _ cannot read adequately.

Fortunately, adult students in this part of Florida who have severe reading problems can find empathetic volunteers at the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg. Each Monday and Wednesday evening, from 5:30 to 8:30, Virginia Gildrie, 76, and 15 other tutors, who buy books and supplies out of pocket, meet at the Lakewood Community School to teach 18 to 20 adult students how to read.

Gildrie, supervising trainer of reading tutors, has volunteered with the council for 24 years. She assesses her mission modestly: It is to serve. “One of my most rewarding moments came,” she said, “when a student told a tutor: “I always buy Easter cards for my family, but for the first time, I was able to really pick the right cards because I could finally read them.’ ”

According to the most recent report of the National Adult Literacy Survey, Gildrie and her colleagues nationwide have good reason to be concerned about the personal and societal implications of inadequate reading:

+ Four out of 10 job applicants tested in 1992 (the most recent year that figures are available) for basic reading and/or math lacked the skills necessary for the job they sought.

+ More than 50 percent of surveyed manufacturing companies indicate that more than half of their front-line workers have serious literacy problems.

+ Nationwide, a correlation exists between reading difficulty and poverty, crime, unemployment, child abuse and substance abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness and high school dropout rates.

Experts say that these problems negatively affect quality of life and raise taxes for additional social services, prisons, remedial education and police protection.

But politicians seem impervious to common sense and logic. Although less than 10 percent of the people who need help get it, decision-makers in most parts of the nation slash adult education funds when budgets shrink. Moreover, public awareness and support of literacy efforts are fading.

Most alarming, Gildrie said, is that while black adults have some of the most serious problems, literacy programs struggle to recruit African-American volunteers. The Pinellas organization, for example, recently enrolled its only black volunteer in eight years.

And how does Gildrie account for this shortage: “I think, considering the history of black people and how far they have come, that a person has to be very comfortable with what he is in his own skin before he can give of himself.”

More specifically, she explained, because they generally live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same churches and shop in the same stores as their would-be tutors, blacks _ believing that their secret will go public _ shun those familiar with their reading problems.

Again, Gildrie: “Blacks also feel that any black person who is able to read would look down on them because this person would say, “I fought all of this stuff you’re fighting, so what’s the matter with you?’ They don’t think that other blacks would have the empathy. But that’s changing.”

The high number of young blacks under age 20 who refuse help is a serious crisis, said Sandy Thursby, a member of the literacy council’s board of directors and an adult education coordinator for Pinellas County Schools.

“They don’t see the need yet,” she said. “They start coming in during their mid-20s. That’s when they start seeing the value of reading. They’re either parents who suddenly become afraid or they have job aspirations and realize that they need reading. Ordinarily, though, we seldom see young people.”

A study by Laubach Literacy International paints a stark portrait of how the inability to read trapped adults: “It interfered with their work; it kept them from knowing exactly what their children were doing in school. It made them shy. It made them sad. And sometimes it made them feel like liars or impostors.”

Learning to read can transform lives, Gildrie said. But thousands of new tutors _ especially blacks _ are needed immediately. If new tutors do not join the crusade, the problem will worsen.