Thursday, May 30, 1991



It bothers me. It's been bothering me for years. Shame on us! As a supposedly advanced and educated country, shouldn't we be making greater progress ending our national problem of illiteracy? It can't be as difficult as ending homelessness, which always seems to come down to spending money. Ending adult illiteracy merely requires teaching people how to read, or how to read better.

The subject attacked my conscience again just recently as I sat in a crowded airport lounge waiting for a flight. I glanced up from my magazine. About half the people in view are either talking with someone or just waiting, alone with their thoughts. The other half were busily engaged in something most of us take for granted - reading.

I saw paperbacks and hardbacks, newspapers, a miscellany of magazines, textbooks, brochures, comics, airline schedules, fan-folded computer print- outs and the silvery screens of laptop word processors.

These items were put away momentarily while we shuffled aboard the plane, stowed our belongings and belted ourselves in. But it wasn't long - some people didn't even wait until the plane took off - before the reading materials were taken out again, along with the newly discovered in-flight magazines and the emergency information cards. (I was sitting right next to the over-wing exit window, so I thought I should at least read the instructions about what I might have to do.) A few folks even smiled, somewhat grimly, over the words on the airsickness bag. The point is - a lot of people were reading.

For many years, I had heard the numbers: one out of five adults in this country either can't read at all or have some difficulty with printed words that go much beyond a simple STOP sign, the MEN and WOMEN on restroom doors or other very elementary instructions, signs or labels. Sometimes, illiterate persons memorize these bits of information as symbols, rather than read them as words. Non-readers often have very good memories - better than you and I. They have to; it's a matter of daily survival.

Stereotypical ideas of what an illiterate must "look like" are false; in fact, they look and usually act exactly like the rest of us. Some appear to be - and often are - quite successful in their businesses or occupations, their family relationships and other personal interests and hobbies. The greatest "achievement" for many of them, however, is how well they have hidden their illiteracy from their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers.

Could the well-dressed fiftyish woman in the aisle seat in my row on the plane be one of these "functional illiterates"? Maybe the tall, clean-cut young man carrying the athletic bag, or the elderly gentleman with bifocals who looked like a law school professor? None of them had been reading or speaking with anyone. Yet, it hadn't seemed quite appropriate to go up to one of them and say, "By the way, can you read?"

Late last summer, feeling somewhat guilty about having procrastinated for so long, I signed up to be a volunteer reading tutor through the adult literacy project offered by the Los Angeles Public Library. Libraries, with their endless shelves of reading matter on every imaginable subject, have given me countless hours of knowledge, information and enjoyment for as long as I can remember. But to a non-reader, a library must represent a fearsome and foreign place, perhaps as frustrating and uncomfortable an environment as a high-tech biological research lab would be to me.

My personal motivation in becoming a tutor was to be able to open those library doors, to open the covers of those books, to someone - to anyone - who couldn't read. I wanted to share the pleasures I had enjoyed for so long.

Due to a previously planned vacation last fall, I missed my first chance at the 12-hour training program. The next available program began in March, and I made sure I was there. Those three Saturday sessions were bracketed, perhaps only coincidentally, around Literacy Awareness Week, March 10-16, adding a sense of purpose for the 35 earnest volunteers in our group.

My "student" and I met for the first time in late March. I had looked forward to that moment with anticipation and, yes, some nervousness - like ''meeting a blind date," as one of our instructors put it. I had no idea at what reading level he had entered the program; I only knew that he had - somewhat courageously - asked for help.

Dan (not his real name) is a family man in his late forties (exactly my age). His present reading skills hover around the second- or third-grade level, according to my own untrained assessment. He dropped out of a San Fernando Valley junior high school in the eighth-grade, frustrated at his inability to keep up, but Dan says he's never been without a job. He now operates construction equipment. He is outgoing and speaks quite well; few would be aware of his hidden handicap.

We have met six times, and I am as amazed at his enthusiasm for learning as he is at how well he is doing. "I can't believe I just read that!" is his very frequent exclamation.

As we work together, I have to remind myself that the reasons many adult illiterates want to learn to read may be somewhat more urgent or practical than being able to enjoy a volume of William Shakespeare or John Steinbeck or Shel Silverstein. These new readers-to-be want to qualify for a job or get the promotion that's been eluding them for years, to write a check in the supermarket, to get the gist of local and national news from the newspaper or to read to their young children.

When the time is right - it could be three months or six months, it could be longer - I'll be at least as excited as Dan when we go out for lunch or dinner to celebrate the progress he has made, however large or small. And when he confidently picks up the printed menu and orders something other than ''whatever he's having," we'll both feel pretty damn good!