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Example: Portraits of some actual adult literacy learners


Kate and her two small children lived on a farm with her boyfriend, a car that sometimes ran, several animals, and Kate's welfare check. When her older daughter was three, Kate noticed that she was learning to read, and panicked...because Kate herself couldn't read at all. Her daughter was about to surpass her while still a toddler. Motivated to an extent she had never before dreamed about, Kate nursed her cranky Volkswagen beetle out of the hills three times a week to attend classes at the literacy program in the nearest large town, a 40-mile round trip.

Kate learned for the first time that she was profoundly dyslexic. Armed with this knowledge, a great deal of intelligence, and fierce determination, she set herself to learning to read. About three years after beginning classes with a reading vocabulary of twelve words, Kate took and passed the five GED (General Educational Development) tests and got her high school equivalency diploma. Reading was still not easy for her, and probably never would be, but she could read and understand anything she wanted to.

According to Kate, the most difficult piece of learning for her was realizing that she no longer had to lie. She had gotten so used to faking things and to deceiving people in order to cover up her inability to read that she had started lying and dissembling even when she had no reason to. "I had to change my whole personality," she said. Kate has taken some college courses, and now works for a local human service agency.


Paul was 18, but a very old 18. His parents had kicked him out three years before, and he'd survived the streets on his own since then, involved in things that no adolescent should even have to know about, let alone participate in. Now old enough so that he no longer had to hide from the child welfare system that he dreaded more than the streets, he came to the literacy program after a try at going back to high school simply didn't work. A high school counselor had told the literacy staffer that Paul was "the worst kid I've ever seen." The book Paul was reading - for pleasure - when he came in, a book he had probably stolen, was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Paul - who, far from being a problem, proved to be funny, engaging, and extremely intelligent - settled into a GED class, occasionally working, but more often talking about his dream of going to Costa Rica. After a few weeks, much to the chagrin of the staff, he disappeared, not only from the program, but from the area. No one could find out where he'd gone...until the program got a postcard from Costa Rica.

Six months later, Paul was back, tanned and ready to get serious. He roared through GED preparation, passed the tests, and disappeared again.

The program had no contact with Paul until six years later when he dropped in for a visit with his daughter. He now had a wife and family, a master's degree, and a job as a counselor in a youth program, where he was "trying to keep kids from going through what I did."


Denise had been labeled "mentally retarded" since she was four. Now in her twenties, and mired in an abusive marriage to a much older man, she had come to the literacy program to learn to read better and to try to get her GED because her husband wanted her to "bring in some money." She could read at about fourth grade level, couldn't manage to write at all, and was absolutely hopeless at solving even the simplest arithmetic problem. She wore ragged and often torn clothes, walked with her face cast down, never looked anyone in the eye, and kept her heavy body hunched over as if to protect herself. She ate junk food constantly.

Denise became part of a mutually supportive group of women students, and her reading began to improve. It was discovered that she had some short term memory problems that kept her from being able to remember sequences, the root of her problems with math. She and the teacher devised some ways around her difficulties, and she began to learn math as well. With the encouragement of other students, Denise started dressing better and standing straighter. She dropped many of her "mentally retarded " characteristics, and started losing weight. Ultimately, she got a restraining order against her husband and moved out.

Continuing to progress, Denise was chosen as one of several spokespersons for literacy on a local TV station. She appeared in a Public Service ad, looking poised and happy, and talked about how much she had learned, and how much better she felt about herself. After the ad had run several times, strangers stopped her on the street to tell her how impressed they were, and how they were happy for her.

Denise had been strong enough to leave her abusive marriage behind, strong enough to start believing that she was a worthwhile person who could learn, strong enough to be willing to appear in public in order to encourage other learners to come in out of the cold. But she wasn't strong enough to endure praise. Not long after the TV ads appeared, she began skipping classes, then stopped coming altogether. She dropped out of sight for a while, until one of the other students realized that she was one of a group of homeless people living in the woods just outside of town. Some of the women she'd been close to and one of the teachers made contact with her, and she talked about coming back...but she never did. Denise could deal with failure and humiliation, but the prospect of success was too frightening for her.