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Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins
Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)
Paying a Heavy Toll for Illiteracy
Rosa Lee Cunningham is so weak she cannot get out of bed.
I cradle one of her limp arms while Richard Cunningham, 36, one of her eight children, grips the other. Gently, we lift her up and support her as she tries to stand. She rocks unsteadily, groaning and whimpering from the exertion. We slowly lean her back against a tall wooden chest of drawers to brace her, but she slumps against it, banging the chest into the wall. We hastily return her to bed.
It is clear she needs immediate medical attention. I tell Richard that I am taking Rosa Lee to the Howard University Hospital emergency room. "An excellent idea," Richard declares.
Later that morning -- Tuesday, March 12, 1991 -- doctors began searching for the cause of her dangerously weak condition. The next afternoon, with Rosa Lee resting comfortably in Room 5N9, the mystery unraveled.
Rosa Lee was a victim, it turned out, of her inability to read.
The first clue came from a blood test. It showed that she was overdosing on Dilantin, a medication that helps prevent seizures. She had twice the recommended level in her system.
She had been taking Dilantin only a few weeks. Doctors had prescribed it for her after another seizure -- her fourth since the fall of 1990 -- had landed her in Greater Southeast Community Hospital. When they sent her home, they gave her a written schedule of the four medications she was to take each day. Under Dilantin, it said "100 mgs 3Xdaily."
"The nurse didn't ask me if I could read the instructions," Rosa Lee said. "I wouldn't have told her if she had asked."
Rosa Lee didn't know that "100 mgs" meant 100 milligrams, or that she was supposed to take one 100-milligram tablet three times a day. She thought she could take more than one pill if she wanted, as long as she took them three times a day. "Sometimes I would take two of them," she said.
It became an unending cycle: The extra Dilantin doses made her feel disoriented and weak; as she grew weaker, she would add another pill, thinking it would make her feel better.
"I didn't know, Mr. Dash," she said, her voice reflecting pain and embarrassment. "I was trying to get well."
CHAPTER ONE: Breaking the Code
Rosa Lee cannot read these words I have written about her life. She is aware that I planned to use intimate details from her past and present for this series of articles about how several generations of one Washington family have lived with poverty, drug abuse and illiteracy. We have spent hours discussing what I intended to write. But she will have to rely on someone else's eyes to find out just what I have written.
She can recognize certain words -- enough to fool strangers -- but the newspaper itself is like a long string of indecipherable code: Here's a word she knows, and here's another, but together they make no sense.
She often asks me to break the code for her. One 1991 morning at McDonald's on New York Avenue NE, where we often have breakfast after her daily visit to the methadone clinic nearby, she asks me to explain a letter she has received from the D.C. public housing agency.
She rifles through a rolled-up sheaf of tattered papers she always carries in her pocketbook, scrutinizing each piece of paper for the housing agency's recognizable letterhead. The bulky stack is her portable filing cabinet, the place where she keeps all her documents, some dating back years. She never throws anything away, because she can't read well enough to decide what she needs and what she can discard.
Finally, she finds what she is looking for and hands it to me.
"This is the wrong letter," I say.
"No, it isn't!" she retorts. "Read the letter. It's from public housing!"
I shake my head and point to the date at the top of the letter: 1989. "This refers to public housing you lived in on Blaine Street NE two years ago," I say, "not to the application you have filed for a new apartment."
"Are you sure, Mr. Dash? Read it and make sure."
"This is not the letter. I've read it. In fact, you can throw this away."
"Don't you dare!" she says, snatching it. "I might need it."
It is infuriating that someone with such a sharp and quick mind is shut out from much of the world around her. She cannot find an unfamiliar street on a D.C. map, but she skillfully navigates the complicated bureaucracy of D.C. public housing, repeatedly securing apartments for herself and her family ahead of other applicants on the waiting list. Balancing a checkbook is out of the question, but she successfully handled large sums of money when she was dealing drugs in the 1970s and 1980s, satisfying customers and suppliers not known for patience.
She tries to hide her illiteracy by going on the offensive. Anyone spelling a name for her is ordered to slow down while she prints each letter in big, blocky capitals. Sometimes, she casually hands over pen and paper and asks the person to write it for her, as if she were too busy to be bothered. She's so good at covering up her illiteracy that I find myself forgetting that she can't even read the few words on a medicine bottle label.
On the afternoon after her release from the hospital -- a blustery March day that makes us welcome the warmth of her apartment -- Rosa Lee and I are sitting on the plaid couch in her living room. The hospital has given her a new prescription schedule, and she has asked me to help her take the medicine correctly this time.
I pick up one of the amber-colored plastic containers. "This is the phenobarbital. I noticed they reduced the amount down to 30 milligrams. When you left Greater Southeast, they had you up to 60 milligrams."
I shake several into my hand. "Now, do you recognize this tablet? What do you see it as?"
Rosa Lee squints at it. "The little white pill. That's the kind that makes me drowsy."
I print "little white pill" on a sheet of paper and hold up a different pill. "Tell me what you see this pill as. This is the Dilantin."
"Is that one of the seizure pills?"
"A white and orange pill," she says. "That's the one I took so many of."
"Right," I say. "That's what made you sick." I write "white and orange" on the list.
"Now this one," I say, displaying a folic acid tablet that she takes as part of her HIV treatment.
Rosa Lee studies it. "Little white pill," she says tentatively.
"No, no, no. That's the phenobarbital. This pill is the yellow pill. Here, look at it again."
"The yellow pill," she repeats, staring at the tablet.
"All right," I say, moving on to the last container. "This is the retrovir, the AZT. This is for your condition of being HIV-positive. Now, you tell me how you see this pill."
"My blue and white."
I show Rosa Lee what I am writing.
"Okay," she says, "but please put the p.m. and the a.m. for me."
"I am. Now read this to me."
She reads each word slowly, carefully, like a rock climber ascending a cliff. "Little white pill: 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. The white and orange pill: 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. The yellow pill: 8 a.m."
I interrupt. "You only take that once."
"Once. Okay. Blue and white pill: 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m."
"Right," I say. "Now, will that work for you?"
"Yes," she says.
Rosa Lee taped the list to the wall outside her bedroom so that her grandchildren, who read better than she does, could help her. As her strength returned and she spent more time away from home again, she stuck it in her pocketbook. After several weeks, she memorized the routine and the list became just one more out-of-date item in her portable filing cabinet.
CHAPTER TWO: The Lessons Learned
Rosa Lee has no trouble remembering when she began hiding her illiteracy.
It was 1953, and she was 16 years old, separated from her husband of a few months and raising three children in her mother's house near Capitol Hill. It was the last place she wanted to be. Living in Rosetta Wright's house meant living by Rosetta Wright's rules, and those rules were choking Rosa Lee.
Rosetta and her family had come to Washington in 1935, seeking refuge from their harsh lives as sharecroppers in North Carolina and Maryland. Her husband, Earl Wright, worked intermittently on construction jobs until his death in 1948, but Rosetta's domestic work brought in money more regularly.
Just as Rosetta's mother had prepared her to be a sharecropper, Rosetta schooled Rosa Lee in domestic work. Long before Rosa Lee turned 10, her mother taught her to scrub laundry on a washboard, to wash a floor so it shined, to make a bed so it looked crisp and neat. Rosa Lee's apartment is a monument to those lessons; no matter how many people are living there, it is always tidy and well organized.
As the oldest girl, Rosa Lee was expected to do laundry for ev eryone in the house; by the time she was in the third grade, she was spending hours at the scrub board every week, washing sweaters and shirts for her parents and their 11 children. "My mother didn't ask me did I have my homework done," Rosa Lee said. "School wasn't important to her, and it wasn't important to me."
Rosa Lee remembers asking her mother why she had to do so many chores. Her mother told her, "You're going to find out. This is the only kind of job we can find for black people."
Rosa Lee isn't sure how she made it as far in school as she did. Each year, she was promoted to the next grade, despite her reading problems. In the seventh grade, not long after her 13th birthday, Rosa Lee became pregnant and was forced to drop out of school. She was supposed to return after the baby was born, but she had a second child at 15 and then, at 16, she married the father of her third child.
Rosetta had insisted that Rosa Lee marry 20-year-old Albert Cunningham. Rosa Lee didn't love Albert, but she was thrilled anyway. Marriage meant she could leave her mother's house forever. Four months later she was back; her husband beat her after he found out that Rosa Lee had been sleeping with a neighborhood boy. Rosetta told Rosa Lee to come home.
Those few months of independence made it hard for Rosa Lee to return. She and her mother argued often about Rosa Lee's welfare checks; Rosa Lee wanted the money to come to her, but Rosetta said she was too young. "What are you going to do with it?" Rosa Lee remembers her mother saying. "You don't even know how to pour piss out of a boot."
Rosa Lee craved her mother's love and affection, but she also feared her. She looked at her mother's broad back and powerful hands, and could think only about how to avoid the stinging slaps Rosetta often delivered during their arguments. Forty years later, she has almost nothing good to say about her mother. "My mother classified me as very dumb," Rosa Lee told me one day. "It was almost as if she was making fun of me."
Rosa Lee saw public housing as her escape. With the help of friends, and without telling her mother, she found her way to the public housing agency one afternoon.
She asked a clerk there for help, telling him that she could not fill out the application by herself. The memory of his sneer still causes her mouth to tighten and her voice to thicken. "Back in those days, they didn't give you any sympathy when you said you couldn't read," she said. "It was like, 'So what? It ain't my fault.' "
Humiliated, she trudged back to her mother's house. She vowed never again to reveal her illiteracy to someone she didn't know.
"Can you read?" she asked her then-current boyfriend that day. Of course he could read. Couldn't she?
No, Rosa Lee said defiantly. She sat next to him, brooding silently, while he filled out the application to switch the welfare payments.
The showdown with Rosetta came four days later.
Rosa Lee was relaxing on the front porch, feeling good that she had completed her chores for the day, when she felt Rosetta's strong fingers jab her in the shoulder.
"Why didn't you tell me that you went and applied for welfare?" Rosetta demanded.
Rosa Lee had forgotten to check the mailbox. Now it was too late. She decided it was time to stand up to her mother. "I wanted to get me and my kids out of your hair," she remembers saying. "It seems like my kids were getting on your nerves."
Her mother's questions were tinged with anger: Who helped her? How did she know where to send it?
"I got somebody to help me! You wouldn't help me!" Rosa Lee retorted.
"Who are you talking to like that?" Rosetta said in the tone that Rosa Lee knew so well.
"Momma," Rosa Lee pleaded, "you would not help me fill it out."
"How am I going to help you fill it out when I can't even read myself?" Rosetta shouted.
Rosa Lee was stunned. "Why didn't you tell me you couldn't read?"
" 'Cause it wasn't none of your damn business!" Rosetta said.
CHAPTER THREE: 'She Was Teaching!'
The first-grade classroom that welcomed 6-year-old Rosa Lee Cunningham in the fall of 1942 was a long way from the kind of school that Rosetta Wright had attended 20 years earlier in rural North Carolina.
Rosetta's school year didn't begin in September and end in June. It was geared to the rhythms of the cotton fields; from the spring through the fall, the sharecroppers had to work the crop, leaving the winter months as the primary time for school. The harvest came first, the classroom second.
The white landowners had no interest in encouraging the black sharecroppers to send their children to school. Education was a threat to the sharecropping system that dominated much of North Carolina and the South when Rosetta was growing up in the 1920s; sharecroppers who could read and write might take their labor elsewhere. Rosetta's parents, Thadeous and Lugenia Lawrence, had no formal education; Rosetta went to school, but when she reached puberty, she went to work full-time in the fields.
There was one similarity between the schools that Rosetta and Rosa Lee attended: Both were part of segregated school systems.
Rosa Lee's difficulty with reading and writing began in first grade, soon after she enrolled at Giddings Elementary at Third and G streets SE. She does not remember getting any special help from her teachers. "If you didn't learn it, you just didn't learn it," she said.
Then one morning at the beginning of fourth grade in 1947, she saw that school could be something more than a place of frustration.
She was talking with a girlfriend in her girlfriend's classroom when the teacher appeared and shut the door before Rosa Lee could leave. Trapped, Rosa Lee decided to take a seat rather than draw attention to herself. Besides, she was curious about the teacher, Miss Whitehead; Rosa Lee had heard Miss Whitehead did things differently in her second-floor classroom.
Within a few hours, Rosa Lee felt as if she had stumbled into a new school. On the first floor, where Rosa Lee had always been assigned, she and her classmates rotated among four classrooms every day. But Miss Whitehead's students stayed all day in the same classroom, and Miss Whitehead handled all the subjects.
On the first floor, the teachers seemed to spend a lot of time in the hall, talking to each other, while Rosa Lee and her first-floor classmates played "and meddled with each other." By contrast, Miss Whitehead's class seemed calm, orderly and exciting.
For three straight days, Rosa Lee climbed the stairs to Miss Whitehead's classroom and sat there, undetected. For the first time in her life, she found school fascinating. "She was teaching!" she told me. "She made you feel like you were learning something." Rosa Lee planned to stay upstairs forever.
Why weren't the children downstairs taught like that, she asked her girlfriend? The friend told her that the first-floor class was an "ungraded class for slow learners."
No one had told Rosa Lee that she was "a slow learner." She remembers angrily cutting her friend off.
It seems difficult to believe, but Rosa Lee went unnoticed in the class for three days. On the fourth day, she raised her hand to ask a question. Miss Whitehead appeared to notice her for the first time. She asked Rosa Lee to stay behind during recess.
After the other students left, Miss Whitehead asked Rosa Lee where she was supposed to be, and then told her that she would have to return to her assigned classroom.
"But I like the way you teach up here," Rosa Lee said. "Why won't you let me come up here?"
"You're not supposed to be up here," she remembers Miss Whitehead saying. "You're supposed to be downstairs."
"Why?" Rosa Lee asked.
"Because you're a slow learner!" Miss Whitehead replied.
Rosa Lee retreated to the first floor. Her teacher, who seemed not to have missed her, told Rosa Lee never to go upstairs again.
Later that school year, Rosa Lee began skipping school frequently. On many mornings, she left the house as if she were going to school, but she spent the day roaming the streets of Capitol Hill instead. Despite her unexplained absences, she was promoted to the fifth and sixth grades.
In the spring of 1949, after being held back twice, Rosa Lee was called to the principal's office. It was the end of her sixth-grade year, and a school official told her she would be allowed to graduate to junior high. "She told me I was being passed on account of my age," Rosa Lee said, "not because I had passed any of my classes."
CHAPTER FOUR: 'Read It for Me'
Forty-three years later, on a January morning in 1992, Rosa Lee is fretting over her telephone bill. She stares at the eight pages, trying to figure out how her bill could be $241 when her monthly service costs $15.38.
She thrusts the bill into my hands. "Read it for me, Mr. Dash," she says, her lower lip trembling as it always does when she's upset.
As we talk, Ronnie, Ducky and Richard are in the living room. They are watching a movie on cable, which Rosa Lee had installed for them. Patty is asleep on the couch. None of them is working at the moment, and no one is helping to pay the $64 monthly rent, the electricity and phone bills, or the cable.
Rosa Lee has the only steady income, not all of which is legal. She receives $437 a month from the Supplemental Security Income program for the disabled poor; the government considers her disabled because her medical problems and lack of skills limit her job prospects. The rest of her money comes from selling shoplifted goods.
Money never lasts long in the Cunningham household, so when the phone bill arrived in late December, Rosa Lee was frantic. The words on the first page -- "Message Units" and "Federally Ordered Subscriber Line Charge" -- meant nothing to her. The subsequent pages, each showing totals and subtotals, confused her even more. She can't add or subtract, so she couldn't check the numbers, much as her sharecropping grandparents could not check the landowner's math when he added up their "share" after each harvest.
She put the bill aside. Three days after Christmas, the phone company disconnected the line. When her disability check came after New Year's, Rosa Lee paid $140 and the service was restored. But with $101 unpaid, Rosa Lee is worried.
I wasn't eager to get caught up in her personal affairs again. I suggested she call her son, Alvin, who is literate and willing to help when his mother calls. Alvin and his brother, Eric -- who live on their own -- are the only two of Rosa Lee's children who have never used drugs.
"NO, NO, NO," Rosa Lee screamed at me, tears trickling down her face. "Alvin's going to be angry and fuss at me for letting these grown-ass children live off of me! No! You've got to help me! You've got to call the phone company. If I call them, I'll only get flustered, and they'll find out I can't read. These bills are kicking my butt, and I'm not getting any help to pay them. PLEASE? PLEASE?"
"Okay, okay, okay," I reply, my head pounding, "but they won't be able to hear me if you're crying."
I scan the bill, which shows a balance of $137 from November, and quickly notice several problems.
Someone has been making calls to "900" numbers that charge $4 a minute for sexually explicit conversations. After checking with Rosa Lee, I ask the C&P billing office to put a block on the line that would prevent any more calls to 900 numbers.
There also are 38 calls to directory assistance, at a cost of $9.88. That made sense: No one in the house can read well enough to use the printed phone book, so everyone uses directory assistance to find phone numbers.
And there are 511 "message units" for local calls outside the District -- to phone numbers in Maryland and Virginia. This is a mystery: Rosa Lee, who didn't realize that she had to pay extra for such calls, says she doesn't know who might be making so many calls.
As I get an explanation of the bill from C&P, I look at Rosa Lee accusingly. The 511 "message units" were all calls to the same number in Prince George's County. This was on top of 340 calls made to that number in November. What is going on? I ask.
Rosa Lee looks both surprised and sheepish. She had been letting a young woman down the hall use the phone to call her boyfriend in Prince George's County. The woman's phone had been disconnected for several months. But Rosa Lee had no idea the woman had been making so many calls.
It didn't make sense. Why would the woman call her boyfriend 511 times in one month, nearly 20 calls a day? And how did she do it without Rosa Lee's knowledge?
The answer, it turned out, was drugs. The woman's boyfriend was a crack dealer, and the woman was relaying orders for neighborhood customers. She made most of the calls early in the day, when Rosa Lee was out. One of Rosa Lee's children would let her in.
Rosa Lee is upset that the woman has taken advantage of her. But she is reluctant to cut off her use of the phone.
"What?" I say. "Why?"
"Sometimes I need some bread," Rosa Lee says. "Sometimes I need some sugar, or something . . . and I ask her to get it for me."
When Rosa Lee's arthritic knee is too painful to walk to the store, she would rather send the woman than one of her children. "They spend my money on crack and don't come back with my change or my food," Rosa Lee says.
I get up to leave. "NO!" she shouts. "Don't leave! Stay with me a little while!"
She picks up the large brass crucifix that she keeps on top of her television, clasping it to her chest.
"I need somebody to stand by me!" she says, her voice reverberating off the walls and into the second-floor hallway outside. "I don't have nobody. I don't have nobody. I can't do it by myself."
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