Arthur Phillips spent most of his life hiding the fact that he couldn't read. Finally, during a stay in the Montgomery County Detention Center, he was taught a skill that most people take for granted. Rosemary Zibart, coordinator of literacy services for county organizations, interviewed Phillips after he learned to read and tape recorded the conversation. Phillips' story is similar to that of thousands of county residents who go through life with the same secret, the same fear and the same desire. It is a happy story, because he conquered his fears and learned how to read, and a sad story, because he died before he could realize the full advantages of his new skill.
Arthur Phillips, 31, said he had been in the Montgomery jail at least part of every year since 1970. His offenses included possession of heroin and armed robbery.
His last stay in the detention center was different, however, said Phillips. Volunteer tutor Isobel Winkel gave him an invaluable gift: she taught him to read. "I feel that something's really going for me--I've got a chance," he told an interviewer.
Now Arthur Phillips will never use the priceless gift he believed would give him a new chance at life. Two weeks ago, he was found mortally wounded outside his apartment building in Silver Spring, a bullet hole in the back of his head, and died a short time later in the Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park. Calvin Carroll, 20, was arrested the next day and charged with murder, according to a police spokesman who said the shooting apparently was the climax of an argument between the two men.
Phillips won parole and left the county detention center at Christmas, apparently believing his future looked brighter than in the past. Interviewed while still behind bars, he described with unusual clarity and forcefulness his life as an illiterate, and the doors that were closed to him as a result.
The decision to study with a reading tutor wasn't easy for Phillips.
"I got a lot of pride but sometimes you got to swallow your pride," he said. "I know there's a lot of people in the detention center that refuse to learn how to read because of pride. They're scared of what their buddy might say: 'You mean all these years I've been scared of that joker. You mean to tell me he can't read? He can't even spell his name.' "
Phillips said he was glad he had decided to learn to read. He called Winkel "a beautiful lady."
"When I was going to school, teachers were hard. But she makes you feel this is not what you have to do. This is what you want to do," he said.
"Still a lot of girls out there don't know I don't know how to read. I get buddies of mine to write them letters but now it don't even bother me. I believe I told one of them," Phillips continued.
"I went to school until I was 9 years old. I was raised by my grandmother. When I was 9 she got cancer and they cut off her breast. Then the cancer spread throughout her body. I never went to school much after that. I loved my grandmother so much I wanted to stay with her all the time--she tried to get me to go to school but I hid in the bushes.
"I was 15 years old when she died. They wanted to put me back in the first grade but I couldn't see sitting in the class with all those kids. They sent me to the Rock Terrace School in Rockville for slow learners and mentally retarded students, and I skipped a few grades there. Then they gave me a job.
"I used to make up all kinds of excuses for not reading : I messed with Angel Dust and it wiped out my mind or I was in a car wreck and it ruined my mind.
"Look at all the abilities I got. I learned how to drywall. I learned how to do blacktop labor. I learned how to do body and fender work but I don't got the education to get a license. Not knowing how to read, you lose a lot of jobs. You lose a lot. You got to take the lowest job and you always got to cry about the money you make. "If I learned how to read and write, it will benefit me and my family because we won't have to sit around weekend after weekend without going nowhere because I can't read a road sign that tells me this way to Washington; this way to Washington; this way to D.C. or Baltimore.
"I used to feel bad when somebody would ask me to go to the store and pick up something that I didn't know what it was. Then they give you a shopping list and you can't read it. It makes you embarrassed to walk up to someone and say 'What's this item?' I used to act like I couldn't read the writing: 'Hey man, can you make out this writing?' And they'd say: 'Yeah, man, that's Ajax, it's right over there. . . .'
"So I got so instead of asking people I'd go and buy some drugs or some wine and stay high all the time knowing that nobody was going to ask this crazy man nothing.
"I got two daughters at the age to understand because kids are hard to fool nowadays. I want to just sit down with them and explain . . . that not being able to read is most of the problem--coming home drunk, always being put in jail--because of being ashamed of sitting around and not being able to take them places and explain things like a father should.
"I always had to show people--hey man, I can fix your TV or I can work on your car and these things I could do. But ask me to pick up a book and read a bedtime story to a little child--you just hurt my feelngs, I'm ready to fight. . . ."
Several organizations in the county provide instructors for detention center inmates and for other students who need tutoring. One of the most active is the Literacy Council of Montgomery County, which estimates that even in well-educated and affluent Montgomery one out of every eight residents over 16 (and not attending school) needs help with reading. This number includes 30,000 persons born in this country and 35,000 foreign-born residents. The council holds free workshops each month to train volunteers who want to become tutors. Its 200 instructors now are working with more than 300 students, while about 40 American-born residents and a larger number of foreign-born residents are on the waiting list.
"There are as many reasons for illiteracy as we have students," says Annamaria Hawkins, director of the Literacy Council. "Some have missed school because of illness; others had to quit to go to work and some simply weren't mature enough for reading instruction when it was offered at age six or seven. Once these individuals get behind in their learning, it becomes very hard to catch up.
"The stereotype of an illiterate person as dishonest and lazy is simply not true. The majority of individuals who seek help in reading are hard-working--they often have two jobs--and are responsible members of the community. You would probably never guess that they are not able to read."
Census takers assume that any individual who has completed more than five years of schooling is literate. Yet Judith Koloski of the Maryland Department of Education thinks raising this level to the eighth grade is justifiable. "If we're talking about people's ability simply to cope very basically at home and on the job possibly a fifth-grade education is sufficient. But I think a person deserves skills adequate to actually take some direction with their lives rather than merely suriving and for that you need more than a fifth-grade reading level."