Bravery takes a lot of forms. But I don't think I've ever personally seen more courageous people than the four who were honored last weekend by the Literacy Volunteers of America.

I think it's human nature to want to belong, to be accepted and respected. We don't like to brag about our shortcomings. We sometimes go to great lengths to hide them.Ruby Simons knows a lot about hiding her weaknesses. She's spent most of her 49 years hiding the fact that she couldn't read or write a single word; she wasn't even comfortable with the alphabet.

So she raised her six children and talked her way into sales jobs. She's a natural salesman, she said, and she must be right. She sold companies on her abilities while somehow bypassing the need to fill out an application. But it always caught up with her in the end. And the next job was always a little harder to get.

Isolation, shame and fear have been her constant companions. The world, she said, really has no place for people who cannot read or write.

Eight months ago, she set out to change her circumstances. She became involved with the LVA and has been working with a volunteer tutor for two hours a week.

Her illiteracy has been easier to shed than her embarrassment about it. When she won an award in the U.S. Mint essay contest, she asked that she be allowed to accept it anonymously. But three days at the national conference convinced her that she is not alone. She's one of about 27 million Americans, in fact, who can't read or write at a basic level.

Now she really is free. She's no longer ashamed that she couldn't read. She's proud that she can. And she knows she'll get better at it.

Literacy may seem like an education issue. But its scope goes much further than that. People who cannot read and write have a hard time functioning in the world. They are in great danger of injuries and accidents because they can't read warnings. They have a hard time getting good jobs, so they end up being poor.

Illiteracy wraps people in poverty, despair, listlessness and fear. It creates mental and emotional problems. It breaks the spirit and steals self-esteem. It destroys.

It takes a lot of courage to admit publicly that you need help. That you can't read.

Kathy Schultz, another award-winner, has isolated herself for most of her 37 years. Six years ago, she could only recognize her own name. Until last year, it was all she could write.

As a child, she was told she was stupid. She believed it. School was difficult and she remembered crying all the time. In the sixth grade she quit going to school and no one objected. Why waste the time? She was too stupid to learn. She knew that. It had been drilled into her.

She grew up and married and had three children. But her life revolved around keeping the rest of the world from knowing she couldn't read or write. She didn't bother to fake it. She just stayed in, lonely and sad. She shared her secret with only one person, an understanding and loving husband.

(He was easy to spot at the awards ceremony. He was packing a video camera and literally glowing with pride.)

Six years ago she made a telephone call and was lined up with a tutor, a woman named Carolyn who has devoted countless hours to teaching Schultz to read. She has made the difference in Schultz's life.

In her essay, on the theme of "What the American Eagle means to me," Kathy Schultz wrote: "I think of my tutor, Carolyn, a woman who thought she only taught me to read. She gave me all the things I saw in the eagle. I am so proud of who I am. She not only taught me how to read, but she showed me how to believe in myself. Freedom. Today I am a beautiful, free woman and I can glide through the world with not a fear of where I'm going or what I'm doing."

Two others won awards during the conference. Unlike Schultz and Simon, Julio Fernandez and Catherine Ho are learning English as a second language.

Fernandez is a 26-year-old who brought his family to the U.S. from Puerto Rico a year ago. When he got here, he couldn't communicate with anyone in English. Now, though he's a little hesitant, he can read and write English well enough to be readily understood.

Ho fought for years to come to the United States from China, where she spent 21 years in labor camps and prisons because she wouldn't renounce her religious beliefs. As a child, she had studied English. She didn't get to use it much, though, and by the time she got here she found that she couldn't communicate. She's been taking literacy classes for 18 months and is fluent.

They got a standing ovation Saturday. Not just because they wrote thoughtful, interesting essays. They were also saluted for having the courage to stand and ask for help.