It's Roger's secret. He hides it from his girl, the guys in the neighborhood, his boss at his part-time job at a food distributing firm and the other seniors at Eastern High School. He hides it behind pleated pants from Britches of Georgetown, in the dizzy, swirling crowds at the disco, and he hides it behind his ambition to be a lawyer earning more than $40,000 a year.
After 12 years in Washington schools, Roger cannot read.
"If I could read, I'd be a different person", Roger said.
To keep his secret through a day where teachers, friends and even someone he just met may hand him a menu, leave him a note or show him a joke and expect him to laugh, Roger (not his real name) has learned little tricks to get someone else to read whatever it is out loud or to find clues that will let him in on a secret code that everyone else semms to know: the written word.
When the bell rings to end his last class of the day, Roger leaves Eastern's massive red brick, Gothic-style school building down the street from RFK Stadium and jaywalks across East Capitol Street to a corner where several buses stop. He waits for the bus among faded row houses and rundown apartment buildings with front doors missing and steps littered by broken liquor bottles. As each bus pulls up, the lanky 19-year-old tries to figure out which bus is the one he takes home everyday. He cannot read the "Sheriff Road" sign that identifies his bus or the signs that identify the routes of any other bus that passes.
Sometimes he looks for the U4 symbol at the top of the front of the bus - he has memorized that - or he looks for faces he has seen before on the bus that will take him home.
Roger's problem is not all that exceptional at Eastern High, at 17th and East Capitol Streets NE. Between 30 and 40 other Eastern students somehow made it through the school system to high school without even being able to read their own names, according to John Skehan, a remedial reading teacher at Eastern. More than half of the student body has a reading problem of one sort or another, he said, with the typical student reading at the sixth or seventh grade level.
And the problem is getting worse. Teachers report that this year's sophomore class is the worst group of readers ever to enter Eastern. Two special courses for nonreaders - one in biology and one (which Roger takes) in government - had to be created at mid-year so students who cannot read will have a chance to learn something about those two basic and required courses.
According to Nellie Lewis, assistant for reading in the school system's office of instruction, Eastern High is an "average" high school when compared to all the city's public secondary schools. The Washington public school system as a whole scores far below the national average on standardized reading tests and is also well below the average for big-city school systems, national testing surveys show.
Nationwide, the statistics show the situation for blacks (who make up 99 percent of Eastern's student body) to be even more striking. An estimated 42 percent of all black 17-year-olds in the country are functionally illiterate, according to a federally funded study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Functional literacy is measured by whether a person can read such basic items as recipes, instructions and newspapers. 'Survival' Courses
Reading is only one aspect of the problem facing this city's educators. More than 500 Eastern students - out of a student body of over 1,800 - now attend "survival" courses. These teach basic mathematics to high school students who can barely add, remedial reading to students who cannot read, and English composition to sophomores, juniors and seniors who cannot write a coherent sentence.
Teachers at Eastern argue that the students - like Roger - who fill the school's "survival" courses are similar in intelligence to those in suburban classrooms. Roger's quick mind has helped him find ways to hide his illiteracy so well that at one college recruitment session for Washington high school seniors, his graceful manners, stylish clothes, and intelligent questions impressed a number of college representatives, including one from Brown University.
But, of course, Roger never told the recruiter that he could not read, a fact his mother has known for 10 years.
She remembers telling her son when he was in the second grade to get a can from the kitchen shelf and waiting as he fumbles with the cans, staring at one before putting it back and reaching for another.
She realized her son did not know which can to bring because he could not read the labels. He also could not read the comics lying around the house.
A few months later, when Roger's mother saw his report card, which said the boy had been promoted to the third grade, she said she went to the school and asked that her son repeat second grade because he could not read.
But the teacher refused to keep Roger in the second grade, his mother recalled, because although Roger had a problem, there were worse readers in the class, the teacher said, and they were being promoted.
By the end of the third grade, however, Roger still could not tell his mother what was in the can or which "PEAS" was printed in large green letters. His mother went back to the school, and this time demanded that her son repreat the third grade because he still did not know how to read.
"They were just passing him on without him even knowing if he was looking at his name when he saw it," she said.
When, after his second year in the third grade, Roger still could not read, his mother gave up and let the teacher promote her son to the fourth grade. She wasn't going back to the school to argue with teachers again, his mother said. Keeping to Himself
"By them keeping him back it didn't improve him any, so they might as well have passed him on," she said. "I decided I'd leave the teaching to the teachers."
Walking through the halls of Eastern today as a 6-foot-1 inch senior, Roger nods and jokes with no one. He does not play and gossip with the class-cutters lining Eastern's halls or stand on the basement ramp shooting the breeze and smoking dope. After class, when the other students have gone, he sometimes loosens up with one or two teachers who know about his secret. But that's it. He will not risk being embarrassed in front of other students.
He does not play on any of Eastern's sports teams despite his love of athletics and he does not belong to any school clubs.
"Yeah, I never got into nothing," he said. "I always thought about reading. Try to read, that's all I ever do, try to read . . . you know, like if you was to go someplace . . . you had to know where you're going, right? So you have to read, right? Drive me a cab, and you couldn't read, how you going to know where you are going . . . (sometimes) I don't know which bus to take . . . I get on a bus, say the U8 or the 4. See, I go by the numbers or the numbers and the letters.
". . . Buses not the problem, you know. When you have to read something to go to someplace, like you're going in (a) building, right? . . . You got to read the signs that tell you to go this room, you know, you got to read something before you go in or whenever, you know. That's the problem right there," he said.
So Roger stays to himself, away from other seniors or the guys on the block. He is shy, not angry or bitter, about his awful secret. He is himself - talking about the boat trips on the Wilson Line that were his favorite as a boy and his new car, a Mazda. But only with persons he can trust with his secret.
"Hey, man, I love people," he said. "I hate to be left out, that's me. But you can only take so much of, 'What, you can't read?' and all that, unless you're dumb.
"I don't want to know no whole bunch of people anyway, see," he said. "So I don't want a whole lot of people knowing my business. Nothing wrong with that. Right? Right!"
Roger is making it through school with his problem - he did not drop out - because education means too much to his parents, a maid and a janitor. But the reading problem does not start when Roger enters the big red brick school building and end when he leaves. The reading problem is like a foul odor that follows Roger. Everywhere.
It is his private frustration, his private curse.
In school most teachers respect the secret. They do not call on him when it's his turn to read. Some others understand when he responds: "I don't have it," "My eyes hurt," or "I don't know where you're at, go ahead."
Even Roger's girl friend does not know that he cannot read.
"No, uh-uh, my girl don't know," he said. "She don't have to know. Only my parents and my brothers and sisters, teachers. They know. It's easy to hide. If someone gives you something that suppose to be funny you look at it and laugh. If they give you something to read, you move your eyes over it and act like you picking it up. If they give me something to read before I sign it, I read, you know, look at it, and then I sign my name."
You could end up signing an IOU for a million dollars, someone told Roger.
"I don't sign too much out in the street," he said. "but I sign what my teachers, the people at work, my parents, you know, what they give me to sign . . ." A Job, Stylish Clothes
Roger hasn't allowed his inability to read to keep him totally out of the flow of life. He has had a job in a food distributorship for over three years, and wears the stylish clothes he has admired since he was a boy.
Dressed in a loose-knit pearl white sweater that matches his pleated white pants, Roger explains that he buys his clothes from Britches when the seasons change and he can purchase a winter sweater at a spring sale price.
He obtained a D.C. driver's license by passing an oral test given by an attendant at the motor vehicles department.
At home Roger, the oldest son, is the best math student in the house, helping his six brothers and sisters with math homework and his mother and father with bills. He has lost his earlier interest in hanging out around Eastern or in his Southeast neighborhood near Fort DuPont Park. Roger's neighborhood, Ward 6, has the third highest rate of unemployment, crime and poverty among the city's eight wards, according to city statistics.
With the high chance of trouble that comes with being on the streets in his neighborhood, which stretches from the Capitol to the hills of far Southeast Washington, Roger can be found at home.
His teachers describe him as a "hard worker,' honest," and "quick-witted."
When anyone unearths the secret that Roger cannot read, he flinches and tells them it is because he skipped kindergarten and first grade.
". . . I was skipped, I didn't really go to first," he said. "That's probably where I made my mistake. See, when everybody was doing the sounds in the first grade, see, I would say them but I really didn't know them.
". . . See when everybody else went to second grade, they was reading. When I got in there, I didn't know what they were doing," he added.
But his mother said her son has never skipped a grade and was, in fact, left back at her insistence. 'He's Not a Dumb Boy'
"He don't talk about it too good," she said. "He's ashamed of it, so he makes up things. He wants people to think he was put ahead so they don't think he was dumb for being left back. You know how children can be with each other, he's shamed. Really, he's not a dumb boy, he's just got that reading thing to get over."
According to his mother, Roger was never given any tests to determine if he had a learning disability. The only time he received any special help with his reading problem was when his ninth grade teacher kept him after class and helped him through an elementary school reader. That book is the only book Roger has ever gone through.
At Eastern, Roger spent his sophomore year and the first half of his junior year in a remedial reading class. But he did not register for the class in the second semester of his junior year because, he said, he felt he wasn't learning anything.
After leaving the class, Roger tried to get into a night class in remedial reading at Spingarm High School. But only students who have dropped out of high school are eligible for the class and Roger does not want to drop out of Eastern. He wants to graduate.
Since he was left back that one time, Roger never has failed a course or missed another promotion in the D.C. schools. But his teachers report that as a senior this year at Eastern, he reads on the second-grade level.
Last fall, reassured by the knowledge that he had not failed a class since elementary school even though he cannot read, Roger began planning to apply to the best college he could find. Apparently the limits imposed on his future by his illiteracy were not obvious to him. His steady advance through school seemed proof enough to him that he would be acceptable to a college somewhere, and his confidence was reinforced by the good impression he had made on college recruiters.
Roger decided to apply to Brown University and told his "survival" government class teacher, William Broadnax, about it.
"Roger shocked me, after watching him to see waht kind of work he could do, after correcting a couple of his tests and observing him in class," Broadnax said. "Roger came to me and told me he was going to see the college rep from some big northeastern school like Brown University. You know, Brown University is not an easy college to get into . . . I said, 'Now, what in the world gave (Roger) the idea he could go to college?
"So I went to the principal and I told the principal what had happened . . . what (Roger had said. I have been teaching this course for seven years and nothing like this ever happened. Even though kids probably had the same idea, I bet they never verbalized it to me.
"So I said (to the principal), there's a fellow in my class who can't read. He can't write. He can't pass a simple test other than to mark true or false and put down any letter for matching," Broadnax said. "In matching, (Roger) will use letters that aren't even on the paper. In matching there's only A,B,C,D, and E. In tests I've given Roger, he's put Fs and Gs over here. There's no Fs and Cs on the paper.
"(And the principal said) what do you think could solve it? . . . So I said there's no need to go downtown to school administration headquarters because you're not going to get anything done down there; it'd be a long, drawn out process and somebody's got to write the course and you got to have somebody come out and teach you how to do it and then they got to appropriate money and they got to OK it and it'll take 10 years.
"By that time, the man is grown and has a family . . . Roger's not retarded. He is not dumb." Games and Diagrams
Broadnax suggested reorganizing classes so that games, diagrams and simple words were used, instead of using a high school textbook that most of his students could not decipher.
Broadnax then faced Roger man-to-man, and told him college was not a reasonable ambition for him.
A month later Roger's ambitions had still not dimmed: he claimed he could be a $40,000-a-year lawyer. But he also had begun to consider a new career as a TV cameraman.
"I figure I'll do that," he said. "They make good money. They should."
Sitting at the dining room table in his parents' home, talking about all the things he'd like to do - travel, be a lawyer, fly an airplane - Roger said he'd be doing these things right now if he could read.
"If I could read, I'd be a whole different person," he said. "I'd have a whole different personality . . . For one thing. I wouldn't be in high school. I'd be in college. And you wouldn't be talking to me now.
"Also," he added, "in the way I express myself I wouldn't use so many small words. I wouldn't be working at (a fast-food restaurant). I'd be down there in the government somewhere. It'd be different because when you can read you know what's going down."
In his five government classes, composed of 150 students, Broadnax estimated that 10 students had a severe reading problem - they read between the kindergarten and third-grade levels - and 50 more had a reading problem that would prevent them from comprehending a high school textbook and doing better than "D" work.
Another 70 of the 150 students, he calculated, could read some of a text book but would find reading it such a frustrating experience that they'd avoid reading assignments or hurry through them and fail to understand ideas or concepts in much of what they had read.
Twenty of the 150 students in his classes can handle the book well (they read on the 10th to 12th grade level or higher) and can do exceptional work, Broadnax said.
Day-to-day, class-to-class, Broadnax said, the reading problem at Eastern is limiting what he can teach his students about American government.
"If I ask a student to go home and watch television, the news or a special program and to write the general idea of what took place or what they learned," Broadnax said, "students come back who cannot write it down, and lots of times they can't even tell you what they've heard, simply because they have no concept of how to put something together, can't structure it . . . (They) can't even come back and tell you in a coherent sentence what they've learned." No Public Statistics
Test statistics on the reading level of each high school in Washington have not been made public by the school superintendent or the Board of Education since autumn, 1968. According to the 1968 test results, as an average, Eastern students scored in the 30th percentile in reading, a ranking that means that 70 percent of all high school students nationwide who took the same test scored higher. The average reading score nationally was in the 50th percentile.
At one point during the three months this reporter spent at Eastern, acting principal Gloria Adams gave Eastern's student body a test to determine how severe the school's reading problem had become. She has refused to make the test scores public, however, explaining that she feels it would be unfair to her students to release the results because the test was not administered by a professional tester.
But several teachers who helped grade the tests reported that the test scores were very low.
How D.C. high school seniors compare as a whole to seniors in schools across the nation reading skills was reported in the August 1977 Report of the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.
The test results showed that high school seniors in this city lagged behind most high school seniors in the nation in reading. It also revealed that high school seniors here, on average, were worse readers thatn high school seniors who learned to read in schools in other cities, such as Detroit and Philadelphia.
According to the 1977 basic skills report, the average high school senior in the District is 2.8 years behind the average U.S. high school senior in reading ability.
"I'm not shocked by the (the reading statistics)," said a teacher who has been at Eastern for more than 10 years. "It has been getting worse for the last five to seven years, and it's been bad all along. This is nothing new."
Nellie Lewis said she believes most students at Eastern read at least on the seventh grade level. She considers that adequate for a high school student.
"There is nothing so drastically wrong that a good teacher should not be able to teach him (the student) if he is reading on the seventh grade level," she said. "If anything is wrong, it is that the teacher is copping out, looking for a reason not to teach that student."
Eastern, where teachers and administrators admit there is not much that can be done to help a student whose skills are at the seventh grade level by the time he or she starts the 10th grade, efforts to deal with the reading problem now involve creating special catering to the needs of the nonreading student.
"We assumed we couldn't accommodate everybody that needed a course that didn't rely on reading skills," said Nancy Cooksey, the Eastern biology teacher who had the idea of offering courses for nonreaders. "So we're taking only those students who have a severe problem in the courses for non-readers. The most severe would be a preprimer (kindergarten) level."
According to Cooksey, who canceled a second-year biology course to help students who were failing elementary biology because of their reading problems, the program for students who do not read will be expanded next year. Remedial Classes on Way
Beginning next year, Eastern will help students with the most severe reading problems by having them work in remedial reading classes for two or three periods daily. To give them additional help, students in reading classes will be grouped in biology, government and other courses required for graduation.
Eastern also is tackling the citywide reading problem by offering high school teachers courses in how to teach basic reading. Most high school teachers are specialists only in one subject, and have never been instructed in how to teach reading.
But just as Roger is hounded by his illiteracy, the reading problem at Eastern High dogs students and teachers alike in just about everything they do.
Tests often are read aloud to insure that everyone understands the question. Teachers now read aloud whatever they write on the board automatically, realizing that some students in the class would not know what was on the board otherwise. Homework is limited to simple assignments that involve a minimum of reading and writing.
Foreign language teachers complain that they cannot make much progress in teaching French, Spanish or Latin to students "who don't have a solid foundation in their own language."
The test scores of Eastern students who take the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), those crucial yardsticks used by colleges to help them decide which applicant to accept, are low because students "don't understand the questions," according to Pat Edwards, chairwoman of school testing at Eastern. "Sometimes they know the answer but they can't read the question."
The reading problem also haunts students who apply for jobs.
"They can't understand why the employer wants them to fill out a form," said a teacher who asked not to be named. "They figure they can get the job, do the job, without ever coming across the written word."
And the reading problem creates frustration and anger in students who come to regard Eastern as a place where they feel stupid, a place where their inability to read is spotlighted for the world to see.
Some students drop out, others stand in the hallways, cutting classes that frustrate them, and others sit in class cracking jokes or flirting, distrupting the class to avoid facing an embarrasing problem.
"I had one young lady come to me the other day and literally brad down," said Walter Brown the teacher's union representative at Eastern. "She told me 'Mr. Brown, I'm 17 years old. I cannot read.' Now she sees herself in this position. Nobody else had to tell her. So it finally dawns on her what her chances are . . ." Cause Is Elusive
From the city's Board of Education downtown to the classrooms of Eastern High School in Northeast, no one can pinpoint a definite cause for the reading problem.
Broadnax sees part of the problem stemming from the fact that today's high school students were the elementary school students of the late 1960s. "Civil unrest led a lot of students to believe that they could do things and get things without sacrificing the time and energy to study . . ." he said. "Just demand it, just demand a job . . . These kids were very impressionable then."
Skehan believes that the reading problems of his students may reflect the fact that from the lat 1960s on there were a series of new school superintendents, some of whom espoused different approaches to the teaching of reading skills.
By last year, according to associate school superintendent James T. Guines, about 30 different reading programs were being used in D.C. public schools. The decision on which one to follow, Guines said, has been left up to individual teachers.
"In most school systems there are just a few adopted text books that everybody must use," Guines said. "But we're very democratic."
Superintendent Vincent Reed agrees with Skehan that there have been too many differing apporaches.
"(The series of superintendents was) one of the most devastating things ever to happen to the school system," Reed said. "For several reasons: Every two or three years we changed direction. Educators have their own individual ways of doing things. That means by the time the system got geared up to go in one direction, everyone had to change and go somewhere else. The constant changeover in superintendents contributed to the reading problem because it kept teachers in each class from knowing where the system was going. The last three superintendents were outsiders: Sizemore, Scott and Manning. They spent a great deal of time getting adjusted, getting to know the people, the system.
"Up to this point the school system has not dealt in developing skills in PK (kindergarten) through (grade) five in the way they should have . . . up until this administration, there has been no systematic thrust. We had 7,000 teachers going in different directions."
To remedy the problem, Reed has proposed establishing a comprehensive new curriculum that would spell out in step-by-step detail how almost all subjects, including reading, would be taught in every school in the city. Testing for Competency
Under Reed's plan, called a "competency-based curriculum," students would be required to pass a series of uniform tests before they could move ahead in any subject. Eventually, they would have to show they had attained certain minimum skills before they could graduate from high school.
The curriculum is being tested this year in 29 schools. Originally, it was supposed to be used throughout the city next fall. But Reed announced last month that it would be delayed for at least a year because it was taking more time than expected to develop the curriculum and make sure it works.
Most teachers and administrators agree with Reed that the blame for the school system's reading problem must lie with the elementary and junior high schools.
"Something went wrong, down below somewhere," said Victor Nicholas, a counselor at Eastern. "I just can't conceive of anyone going to school all those years and then coming here reading on the first and second grade level."
There is widespread doubt among Eastern's faculty, however, that Reed's competency-based curriculum will be of any help.
"We don't have the facilities to hold all the kids that would be left back if we followed CBC, and said that every student leaving the 10th grade had to have all the skills a 10th grader should have," said Ray Hammond, an assistant principal at Eastern.
"We won't be seeing those kids, the ones that will be coming through the CBC system, for years," said a teacher who asked not to be named. "What are we going to do until then?"
Whatever the reason for the reading problem in the D.C. schools, Roger, a shy and handsome young man, will graduate from high school this spring as a 19-year-old who reads on the second grade level.
Roger plans to go into the Army next year if he can pass the preinduction examination. He expects the Army school to teach him how to read.
From there, Roger hopes he will go on to become a TV cameraman and the reading problems as a teen-ager will be a thing of the past.
"I don't care how much you preach or write about it," said Walter Brown, one of Eastern's biology teachers. "These kids still have missed. We know we missed them. But what are we going to do about it as an administration? What are we going to do about it as people in society? Are we really giving the kids a chance that are coming along now? That's what I'm concerned about."
Next: The "hall people"