Lois R. is one of an estimated 30,000 adults in Prince George's County who cannot read above a fourth-grade level. Calling her illiterate somehow does not seem fair to the shy, hardworking 27-year-old from Adelphi.
She never missed a day at Northwestern High School, where she was graduated in 1975, was never late and did everything her teachers asked. But when she left school she could not read beyond words memorized through practical experience.
She did mostly manual restaurant work until the birth of her first child. Now she studies the building block syllables of English with a private tutor three times a week. Her first goal is to be able to read to her bright 11-month-old daughter.
"I want her to be able to go to the best schools," she said. "A lot of the public schools they don't teach you a lot. I always ask mothers, 'Are you reading to your child?' "
Lois is among a minority of nonreading adults unashamed to receive free one-on-one training through the Literacy Council of Prince George's County. Now she can read haltingly for the first time from a newspaper or the Reader's Digest. But the volunteer literacy group reaches no more than 100 needy county residents at a time, according to council president Mal Lindstrom, because of the reluctance of illiterates to "come out of the closet."
"Each one is a special lesson, each one is so different, I can see why they fell through the cracks in school," said Lois' tutor, Mabel Meck. "There is no way to put three of them in one class and teach them what they need to know."
The Literacy Council spreads the word on little blue cards left at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Social Security offices and other public places. "It says, 'Free reading lessons for adults -- call this number,' " according to Lindstrom. "Very often they can just read enough to catch the word 'free.' "
When they call, Lindstrom arranges for a private meeting with a tutor who hopes to become a friend to the nonreader. Often the illiterate is unable to drive or take a bus to meet a tutor, so the tutors usually make house calls.
"This is a very private thing," said Lindstrom, whose group receives no public funding. "We make it very easy for them."
Prince George's County schools' Adult Basic Education programs reached only 968 adults reading below the fourth-grade level last year.
"Most adults having reading problems keep their heads down -- they hide," said Jack Cole, in charge of reading programs for the county. "It's tough to get them into the classrooms and harder to keep them there. Today, with all the electronic media, the ability to decode words is something that some people can just get around."
John S., a sanitation truck driver, arranged years ago for a stand-in to take the Maryland driver's test for him because he couldn't read. The 43-year-old father of five said his problem began when an illness kept him out of most of first grade in his Pennsylvania coal mining home town.
"They put me in the second grade, but I was lost. I ran across the same people, but they knew things I didn't know, so I rebelled," John said. "I gave all the signs that kids give today. I'd distract, say 'I didn't hear you.' The more the teacher would stress things, the more excuses I would make for the problems with me."
After dropping out of school in the 10th grade, he came to Washington at age 16. It took him months to even attempt to look for a job because he was unable to negotiate written directions on public transportation.
He turned to crime once when he was 19, and received a year's probation for a housebreaking. He then decided that if he stopped showing up for his probation appointments he might learn to read in jail. He received 90 days in the D.C. Jail to consider his mistake.
"Of all places, in jail I really needed to be able to read," he recalled. "I couldn't even pick up a newspaper to occupy myself. My lights were out. All I could do is look at the walls and dream."
But after he got out, he began to find ways to cope. He finally landed a job doing maintenance work at a boatyard. He learned how to date and socialize without giving away his secret.
John has held his present job for 17 years, chooses his friends carefully and owns a private home in the quiet middle-income Kettering area of Prince George's. Yet he realized he was still "a prisoner within myself."
Depression and frustration with his handicap moved him to answer a Literacy Council advertisement last year. Now he can read to the point of sounding out most words he encounters.
But more important to him, he has become the first student member of the Literacy Council's board of directors and a strong advocate of helping others to help themselves to read. Frustrated nonreaders often call him for encouragement.
"When you're talking about illiteracy you're talking about something very deep," said John, who feels that society does not value illiterates enough to help them. "It's a disease that has to be dealt with. A lot of prominent people die from cancer. Very educated people are blind. For people with handicaps we even change the streets for them. But who cares about people who are illiterate? Nobody."