Inetta Bush, 34, comes across as confident, intelligent, personable. Orphia Brown, plump and pretty at 41, is more bashful, although she has no trouble holding up her end of the conversation with a stranger.
Nothing in either the speech or the manner of these two women gives any hint that they are victims of a shameful American problem that is far worse than the Census Bureau statistics suggest.
They are--or were, until a short time ago--essentially illiterate.
Brown says she knew for some time that she had a serious reading problem. But her teachers kept promoting her, and she was embarrassed to ask for the help she knew she needed. "I got up nerve once to ask my English teacher at Kelly Miller Junior High to help me, but she acted like I was making a problem for her. She finally told me, 'I've got mine; you've got yours to get.'"
She soon lost all interest in school. "I started skipping classes. Then I met a man I knew could take care of me, so, at age 14, I got married." She soon found herself pregnant and left school in 9th grade.
She is now enrolled in an adult literacy course at Push Literacy Action Now (PLAN), 2311 18th St. NW, and feels better about herself than at any time she can remember. "I'm not as good as Inetta," she says, "but I'm doing all right."
Inetta Bush is something of a star at Literacy Action. When a staffer couldn't be there to deliver a short speech at a Tuesday night awards program, Bush read it for her. "Normally, I would have memorized it," she admitted. "I've always been able to decipher things if I have enough time, and since I'm very good vocally, I could make you think I was reading. But Mike Fox (Literacy Action's executive director) is something of a showoff, so he only gave me the speech a few minutes before I was to read it." She did it beautifully, inserting an ad lib here and there, losing her place a couple of times, but she handled the speech as though it were her own.
"You don't know what it means to be able to read," she told me later. "I'm not dumb. I guess I've always had street smarts. But if you can't read, you can't be sure you know what you know, because you can't verify anything. You feel so inadequate."
She tells stories of being cheated by people who took advantage of her handicap, of catching wrong buses, of buying the wrong phonograph records, of a marriage that failed "because I wasn't able to help my husband" --stories that would tear your heart if it weren't for her present confident manner.
The Census Bureau tells us that we are a nation with a literacy rate approaching 99 percent--meaning basically that nearly all of us have completed at least five years of school. Bush knows how misleading that can be. She left school in the 10th grade, back in Rock Hill, S.C., as a functional illiterate.
How could such a thing happen to an obviously bright young woman?
"All you have to do is miss something valuable, like deciphering sounds," she explains. "I got lost in 4th grade. I found myself wanting to ask the teacher, but nobody in those days talked to the teacher about such things. I could have gone back to fifth grade, and with a little help I could have made it. But you just can't do that kind of thing. It's too hard to deal with your peers. So I just left school."
She wasn't totally illiterate, she says. "I could make out most words, but it took me so long that the material didn't make sense. It would have been worse, but I have always liked the sound of language. I could sit all day and listen to an Englishman talk. My interest in words made it easier for me to figure things out, if I had enough time, but as for really reading, I couldn't do it."
But she knew she would learn to do it some day. And against that day, she started buying books: drugstore novels, science books, "Gone with the Wind," the Bible--anything. "I'd just keep them dusted off and wait."
The waiting is over now. "I've read everything I have," she said. "I want to read the Bible, now. I've already read the Good News Bible, which is written at the 9th- or 10th- grade level, but the King James version is still hard. I'll do it, though."
Like Orphia Brown, she bubbles with praise for Literacy Action, a mostly volunteer effort (two paid staffers) that at any give time is instructing some 100 American and foreign men and women.
Students pay $10 a week for two days' instruction; $20 for five days, and nothing if they aren't working. The balance comes from donations. There is, Fox is proud to say, not a federal dollar on the premises.