People who can't read go to all kinds of trouble to hide that fact from the rest of the world. They get pretty good at it, too, doing things like copying the name from a store marquee onto a check before buying anything, or frequently asking for directions instead of reading a map.
But faking literacy can become more work than learning how to read, says Linwood Johnson, who is visiting Utah to talk about the changes in his life reading has brought him as part of the "Light on Literacy Week" celebration.Johnson didn't learn to read until he was 36. He fell behind in school as a child because his family needed him to help chop cotton, a common duty for children from poor black families in the Mississippi Delta during the early 1960s. By the time he was in high school he figured he'd be better off quitting - even though he says he probably could have faked his way through graduation - because he just couldn't read.
The turning point came when an employer remarked that he liked hiring people who couldn't read because he could pay them less and therefore make more money off their labor. That conversation rang in Johnson's ears. He was tired of being broke because no one had to pay him much.
Then one day he saw a television spot advertising a literacy program. Eventually, he enrolled in the Metro Voluntary Literacy Program in Nashville, Tenn. A year and three months later, he finished the program and then went on to finish high school, abandoned so many years before.
"I've been on cloud nine since I finished the literacy program," he said. When he received his high school diploma last May, "It was like receiving the Nobel Peace Prize," he said.
And because he's now literate, he could communicate with his brother stationed with the military in the Middle East. "Thank God," he said, "I was able to sit down and write him a nice, long letter."
Since learning to read, Johnson has himself become a tutor and a strong advocate of support groups for those who view their illiteracy as something they should keep hidden. It is common, he said, for new readers to drop out of a literacy program because they feel it takes too long.
"They're motivated. They're determined," Johnson said. But reading takes time and hard work, and it's not something that can be picked up in six months. New readers will drop out because they forget to give themselves enough credit or enough time to learn a skill that ordinarily takes 12 years of school to hone properly.
Dropouts aren't the only illiterates. Many students finish high school with grade-school reading levels. Though Johnson hesitated to lay blame for this increasing illiteracy - "you hate to point your finger at anyone" - he does believe marginal students can be lost in overcrowded classrooms.
"You have 25 students who can read, but 10 who can't. What are you going to do?" he asked. "You can't put all of them in special ed classes."
Teenagers are a particularly difficult group to teach to read, because they are so embarrassed about what he calls "the hidden problem." He therefore takes special pains with his own student, a 16-year-old boy who prefers to meet in out-of-the-way places so no one knows what he's up to.
Younger children are easier to interest in reading, he said. In his own neighborhood, children who see him reading on his front porch regularly ask him what he's doing. So he takes them to get their library cards, and introduces them to a whole new world through books.