At 7:30 a.m., I headed toward my ancient Buick to drive it to the radiator hospital. Skipping along toward her mother's car nearby was Barbara, my young lady friend. "Hi," she said.

"He," I said. "Do you always leave for work this early?"

Children love jokes, the cornier the better, Barbara giggled and said, "I don't go to work. I go to day care. My mother goes to work."

"Oh," I said solemnly. "Have you ever thought about giving your mother a day off from work? You could drop her off at day care and then you could go to work."

Barbara shook her head. "I can't work yet," she said. "I don't know enough words."

"Nonsense," I said. "You know enough words to talk to me."

"Yes," she said, "but I don't know enough big words. Before I can get a job, I need to learn big words."

At the office the next day, I read a story by staff writer Thomas Morgan.

It was about a program designed to catch people who cheat on the District's welfare benefits for temporarily disabled workers.

Morgan said 800 aid recipients have been dropped, in many cases because they didn't respond to notices or didn't comply with requirements in time.

He added that qualified people are being denied benefits "because they can't understand -- much less fill out -- the needed government forms." The crackdown has caught people who can't read and don't understand government form letters.

Morgan quoted a 55-year-old woman as saying, "I did what the social worker told me to do." The woman lost her benefits because she doesn't understand phrases like "resume payments" and "vocational needs."

The plastic valve in my heart skipped a beat at Morgan's next line of quotation: "I don't know what I'm going to do. I have nothing to live off."

Little Barbara, who must be all of 7, already knows that she must stay in school until she learns enough big words to see her through a practical world filled with government forms, small print, insurance policies, contracts, mortgage notes and accident reports. But millions of Americans failed to get this kind of schooling, and now they are paying a high price for what they missed.

It is futile for somebody like me to try to assign blame for the educational deficiencies of the woman Morgan wrote about, or any other individual. Sometimes parents do not or cannot argue persuasively for the value of a good basic education. Sometimes the school system is inadequate. Sometimes the child's environment is anti-intellectual, and peer pressure lures him into the streets instead of into the schools. Sometimes family poverty makes it necessary for him to leave school prematurely.

More factors are involved than can be dealt with in one column of newspaper space. Nevertheless, it is important for parents to be aware of the need for education. And it is important for children to be aware of the weight they will carry if they don't learn to think straight, read with understanding, write coherently and express themselves with clarity when they speak.

Yesterday I received a letter from Laredo, Tex. I will omit the writer's name and quote him verbatim:

"I lost my left hand, while working for another company, during a lay off, that was non-scheduled from Bethleham Steel, Sparrows Point Baltimore Steel Plant. I got a burned foot, resulting in an infection prior to their lay off. I was mal-treated at their dispensory, where I had to walk over a mile. Transportation was supposed to be furnished. The president of Bethleham Steel told me via correspondence through the mail; that I was not on the lay off list."

"I paid $200 to a lawyer to sue for illegal dismissal but he did not do anything for me. The union's attorney of the steel workers was supposed to sue for the bad treatment of my foot, but I never heard from him."

"I bought U.S. savings bonds at the rate of $50 a week for seven years, and can't get even a list of those."

"I signed up for unemployment and sub pay, and never got anything from that. I am currently completely disabled and feel Bethleham steel's lay off, done illegally, is responsible and owes me fringe benefits, because my current condition was an end result of their wrong doings. Can you help me?"

I will do what I can to get help for this man, but I know from experience that it will not be easy.

He gives no time references, does not say where he was employed when he lost his hand, doesn't name any union official or lawyer with whom I could begin my investigation, and doesn't identify his work unit at Bethlehem (or even spell the firm's name right).

Yet he has been kicked around by life to the point that anybody who hears his story must react with sympathy. I hope Barbara can read all these big words, and that she will stay in school long enough to make sure that things like this will not happen to her.