Adrift In the Written World

New York WomanLinda Briggs is one of the 1.5 million New Yorkers who are illiterate. Bravely, she’s decided to tackle her problem.

It will take most adult Americans about twenty minutes to read this article. It will take Linda Briggs hours of sounding out syllables, of painstakingly reading to the end of each sentence simply to gather the context. Though she suffers from no particular learning disability, Linda, like some 1.5 million other New 
Yorkers and 44 percent of her fellow black Americans, is functionally illiterate. Most literacy experts define functional illiteracy as writing and reading below fifth-grade level. For New Yorkers, this means the inability to read the Daily News with ease. After three years of tutoring, Linda’s reading has improved 
so much that she has surpassed that simplistic definition. But not by much. Riding the Broadway local, she starts reading the News’s horoscopes aloud at 34th Street, stumbling over every few words. By the time she finishes reading these twelve three-sentence fortunes, we’ve pulled into 79th Street.

Linda, 33, can fill out a short employment form, look up someone in the phone book and solve easy math problems she faces in her job as a carpenter’s apprentice. But she can’t understand complex instructions, read a novel, write an essay or, most significant to her, pass the high school equivalency exam. Her handicap not only stunts her job prospects, it stunts her worldview: Ask Linda how long it takes to fly around the globe and she says a month. Ask her when the Stone Age was and her first guess is that it came after Christ. 
Crack a joke about Imelda Marcos’s shoes and she smiles unconvincingly. Linda’s gotten by, though, partly because she’s smart enough to be able to hide her handicap.

During our second interview my tape recorder breaks, and I take her with me to replace it. As I get in the cashier’s line at the East 33rd Street electronics shop, Linda gives me her Disappointed Mother scowl. Then she pulls me out of line and marches me straight back to the pimpled salesclerk. “You don’t leave the store with anything unless they check it out, so when you get home you don’t have no problem,” she tells me. She gets the clerk to unpack the recorder and set it up. Her queries sound shrewd and playful, as if she’s just testing him. How come there’s no microphone attached? Which button do you push when? Does it need an electric cord? “How’d you get this job?” she teases when he fumbles with a battery. Finally the red recording light goes on and we’re ready to test the recorder. Linda giggles and says in her warm contralto, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen …. We in 33rdStreet, and these people don’t know what they’re talking about.” When we leave the store with a tape recorder that works, she’s beaming. Many illiterate people move about the world in just this way. You hear of truck drivers who memorize landmarks rather than route signs, parents who feign busyness when a child asks for help with homework. Linda is reluctant to tell war stories, but as she and I get to know each other over three months, she comes to trust me with the facts of her history.

Unlike many of New York’s older illiterates, who grew up in southern sharecropping country, Linda is part of a younger, and growing, group-men and women raised in urban New York, products of the local school system. Linda, one of nine children, wasn’t raised in an illiterate family; her mother, father and older siblings can all read and write. But, she says, her childhood was filled with more ruckus than reading: “My father say, ‘Yeah, you and your brothers used to have a crowd around you, you used to dance all day long …. ‘ He say we’d distract the class.” By the time she reached junior high, says Linda, “I knew I had [reading] problems. But it seemed when I asked the teacher a question that he didn’t want to help me. I couldn’t read it, and he wouldn’t say nothing.”

Linda dropped out of high school at age fourteen, pregnant (her daughter Lisa, now age eighteen). If she’d stayed, she says now, she’d have gotten her high school diploma. “But they would have gave it to me just to be givin’ it to me, just to get me out of the school.” Despite her shame about being illiterate, she had no real reason to seek help for years. Her daily pastimes-TV watching, kid watching- didn’t require an education, and she earned money doing an assortment of manual jobs, including scooping ice cream. When faced with complex tasks, such as reading a public-assistance form, Linda had her mother or a social worker to help her. It wasn’t until she had a second daughter, Tywana, that Linda made a real effort to change her life. She felt a growing need to provide for her daughters and to set an example for them. Both girls, she says proudly, can read and write: “I want them to go to school. I don’t want them to follow in my shoes.” But her attempts to better herself repeatedly ended in frustration. Ever the optimist, she once enrolled in a training program for clerical work. She went that first day, looked around at the typewriters, the steno pads, the blackboard, learned she’d have to pay back the financial aid offered her-and left. “I wasn’t gonna learn nothing, how could I pay ’em back?” she says. “I couldn’t really read.” Then, five years ago, Linda’s Harlem apartment building burned down, and she and her daughters began shuttling among welfare hotels. It was a rude shock, realizing how tough life could get, how little she could do to control it. So Linda made herself a promise: once they got out of the hotels and into a housing project, she’d go back to school, learn to read, get training in something. And she followed through. In 1984, when she finally found a place to live, she signed on with a nonprofit organization called Non-traditional Employment for Women (NEW), which helps women learn to read and write and get jobs-better-paying “men’s” jobs-such as plumbing or construction work. Now Linda is a union member and a second-year carpenter’s assistant. She’s done entry-level manual labor on major construction sites, including the building of a new dormitory at Barnard College. It’s difficult to find steady construction work, but when she can’t, she receives unemployment benefits rather than welfare, a change that pleases her immensely.

Linda wanted more assistance with reading than NEW provided, so the organization hooked her up with Literacy Volunteers of New York City (LVNYC), a nonprofit group that has been teaching adults to read since 1973. Two nights a week Linda takes the No. 6 train to the employees’ cafeteria at the New York Life Insurance building on Park Avenue South, where the lunchroom is transformed into a LVNYC one-room schoolhouse. Small clusters of tutors and students review sentence- completion exercises, write compositions and read. Linda always comes dressed student-style: blue jeans,sweater, windbreaker. Her hair is cropped short; she wears tortoiseshell eyeglasses, no makeup, little jewelry. In a backpack she carries Newports and tattered computer printouts that document the results of the last three times she has taken the high school equivalency exam, the GED. Linda has failed all three times.

When I first met her, she was being tutored by Rosemary Dorward who told me, “The policy was not to discourage Linda from taking the GED, as long as she could bounce back from failing. Because it wasinevitable that she would fail.” As of last year, Rosemary thought Linda was three to four years away from succeeding. Once she does pass, she can take a civil service exam and enter the world of steady work and pensions and, as Linda sees it, earn her children’s respect. When I ask Linda what she wants to be, she tells me: a clerk in a subway token booth. “I got confidence in myself,” she says. “Only thing holding me back in the GED is writing, science and math. Once I get that writing down, I know I could pass it.” So she and Rosemary spend much of her tutoring sessions practicing writing. When Linda is unsure of a spelling, she shields her paper with her hand and gives Rosemary a conspiratorial smile. Then she spells out loud as she scribbles, pausing like a child in a spelling bee: “taste? t-a-t … No? Oh, OK, t-a-s-t-e.” To practice essay writing, Linda composes a paragraph about one of our interviews. She writes: “Last Tuesday I had an interview with Nan. She wanted to know abot may my exellese [experience] in concution [construction] wrk. I ask her which one she one [want] to hear about fast [first]. She-say said let’s start off with carpentry wrk. I talk her all night. She asked me where did you frst stared [start] workin concution wrk. I told her I wendt to non traianerin empolt [non-traditional employment] for women for my training.” As I read this, I try to remember my own early attempts at writing, but I can’t. It’s as if the skill had always been there, just waiting to be jump-started by the proper environment-a room with a big clock, alphabet books, a looming teacher. But for illiterate adults, learning to write is like learning a foreign language. Sitting next to Linda, I try to view words as she must see them-like so many unfriendly puzzles.

Part of LVNYC’s approach is to have students tackle prose written above their reading level. They sound out as many of the words as they can, gathering meaning through the context. At one session Rosemary pulls out an issue of News for You, a national weekly newspaper for illiterate adults, written below fifth-grade level. Linda pores over an article about Bob Woodward and his book Veil, which recently had been lambasted by the widow of ex-CIA chief William Casey.

Linda has no idea who Casey was, but she gives the story her best shot. Reading aloud, she calls Congress “congreen.” Saudis become Soviets; Woodward, Woodwind. She can’t keep Casey straight either. She keeps calling him Cannon and Carin, until she connects him with Ben Casey. At the end Rosemary asks her to summarize what Mrs. Casey is saying about Woodward. Her answer is quick: “She says he’s lyin’.”
“One of the things about illiteracy,” says Rosemary, “is there’s no sense of history, of knowing why things are done the way they are.” Once she brought a globe to class to show Linda the locations of different countries. Linda couldn’t figure out how the globe worked, and finally Rosemary realized why: she hadn’t thought to tell Linda that all the blue represented water. “I took it for granted that everybody knew that. But of course there was no way she could possibly know.”

Rosemary also spent time explaining the controversy over evolution versus creationism to Linda. “I told her about the Garden of Eden. She me to get her a Bible, which I did, a modern English one. After just the first couple of pages, she looked at me and her eyes lit up and she said, ‘Hey, this is really good stuff!’ To hear and see God talking was amazing.”

Rosemary doesn’t just supply Bible and geography lessons. She’s also the proud audience for each of Linda’s small triumphs. At one point Linda is between carpentry jobs and spends a day looking for work as a security guard. She comes to that night’s session ecstatic: she’s found a job. Linda gives her account, punctuated by cries of “Terrific!” from Rosemary. Early that morning Linda had sat in her apartment, staring at the Daily News classifieds, telling herself over and over, “I can do it if I try.” Finally she got up the gumption to apply at a midtown office building. She lists for Rosemary the items she filled out on the employment form. “My address, whether 1 was married, the school I went to.” She couldn’t understand one section of the form, so she left it blank, hoping the interviewer wouldn’t notice. No such luck. He asked her to complete it. So she risked it all by asking him: “What does this mean?” He wanted her to write down her parents’ names. When she finally finished the form, he hired her.

On good days such as this, Linda exhibits an almost audacious confidence in her chances of success. “Can is in the dictionary, cannot isn’t,” she tells me, not altogether accurately. If you’re aware of Linda’s reading problems and don’t reject her, she latches on to you. You become a source of information, a pillar to lean against. Every time we meet at a restaurant, Linda recites the menu aloud so I can correct her. “Sauce?” she asks one night at the Bun and Burger. “Sautee,” I say.

But when Linda fears ridicule, her openness about her deficiency vanishes. Her shame seems to add to her isolation. She says she has no interest in meeting a man and instead spends most of her spare time alone– doing housework, homework or singing along with the stereo.

Eventually Linda invites me to see her home. We walk over to the Chinese take-out place on Eighth
Avenue. As Linda has warned, Eighth Avenue is scary, with burned-out buildings and crack addicts saun-
tering through the rubble. But the housing project where Linda lives is tamer stuff. The floors are bare
linoleum. There are two bedrooms– one for her, the other for her daughters. In the tidy kitchen a mug from
Rosemary still sits in its box. In big block letters it says MINE! I see no books or magazines in the apart-
ment. But I do see plenty of electronic equipment. One side of the living room has been dubbed “Linda’s Disco”-for good reason. Arranged in a stack are a sleek black amplifier, receiver and tape deck. There are also two turntables, a sound mixer, a mike and four loudspeakers. Small disco lights snake along one long wall, blinking red, green, blue. Linda bought them all very cheap from a relative. The disco is for her, to sing in when she’s alone. She shows me her routine. Holding the microphone she shouts, “Hey, y’all, let’s rock! Yeah!” Then, looking out the window, which faces the Harlem River and the Major Deegan Expressway, she
croons her heart out with Patti LaBelle: “Once again I’m / One more time I’m/On my own. No one said it would be easy/On my own.”

The next week I come to another of Linda’s tutoring sessions, one of the last before Rosemary moves to Scotland and passes Linda on to another tutor. This time Linda doesn’t have Rosemary to herself. Her fellow student, Fred, has shown up. Officially Linda shares all her sessions with Fred, but he misses them so often that her lessons are usually private. When he is there, Linda thinks, he slows everything down by constantly bantering with Rosemary. While Linda has been making steady progress, Fred’s absences mean he’s just treading water.

White and middle-aged, with curling gray hair and half-spectacles, Fred looks more like a professor than most people’s idea of an illiterate. To keep his handicap secret, he’s had to turn down several promotions at the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning company he works for. The biggest challenge came when his firm computerized, but Fred had enough seniority to insist that the younger staff members learn to operate the computers. Then he watched and memorized what they did. Rosemary makes Fred get down to work. He tries to write the word well. He writes slowly, deliberately, w-i-l-l.

“It’s another vowel,” Rosemary says softly.

“What’s a vowel?” Fred asks.

Later Linda and I grab some sandwiches. We talk a little about Fred. “If you come every day, you wouldn’t have to fake nothing,” Linda says. There’s a pause. Then she suddenly looks up: “If you could have one wish in the world, what would your wish be?” I mumble something vague. “I wish I was a baby,” says Linda. “I could start all over again.”

Six months later 1 drop in on another of Linda’s sessions at the New York Life Insurance lunchroom and am amazed at how far she’s come. Though still not ready to pass the GED, she is full of plans. She’s studying to take the written part of the driver’s test. Eventually, she now says, she’d like to be an Amtrak conductor.

She tries to read the Daily News every day and has developed her own view of elections and presidential can-
didates: “They say whatever you want to hear-then when they get in, they don’t do nothing.” Her new
tutor, Arthur Hammer, shows me a composition she recently wrote about overcoming shame. Though he
helped her with the spelling, her writing looks steadier and more self- assured than it used to. Not long ago Hammer helped her send a protest letter to South African prime minister Pieter Botha about the Sharpeville Six. In closing she wrote: “Please get back to me on this matter.” Arthur tells me his favorite moment as Linda’s tutor was when he told her, “I’m proud of you” and she answered, “I’m proud of me, too.”

In her spare time Linda still sings her heart out in her apartment. For the moment, her older daughter, Lisa, is staying with Linda’s elderly mother, who needs live-in assistance. Tywana is still at home with Linda. This year Tywana’s elementary school placed her in its class for gifted children.