Magic happens after a woman learns to read

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 31, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Dena Leizear's ablaze. Eyes wide, strawberry blond hair gleaming, she has all these brand new words bursting from her mouth, tumbling over each other, as though scrambling for an exit from a fiery place.

She's on fire to explain. All her life, the words were trapped inside of her, and now they aren't. Something wonderful has happened. In her 36th year, Dena Leizear has learned how to read.

"Fifth-grade level," she says now.

She looks around the Cross Keys Deli, where she's come for lunch, and seems ready to leap atop a table and announce the grand news to everyone in the place: Fifth-grade level!

Once, such an admission came tinged with a certain implicit embarrassment. But no longer. If there's shame, it belongs to a Baltimore County school system that let her pass through all of the years despite her clear inability to form letters into words, and it belongs to the specialists who never noticed she suffered from dyslexia.

"It's amazing," says Margaret Proctor, Dena's tutor, "that nobody picked it up."

"I had my ways of hiding," says Leizear. "I'd memorize things. I'd find a way to compensate. But the frustration was unbelievable. I'd break down crying to myself, thinking, 'Something's wrong. What's the matter with me?' "

It was never a question of intelligence.

At 16, head spinning, she left school and went to work. For nine years, she built transformers. Now she rebuilds alternators for cars. This is pretty sophisticated work. If you can't read, it's just remarkable.

And yet, imagine her troubles: Not being able to understand street signs, or ingredients on a box, or a road map. She's lived in Parkville much of her life, but has found herself in unfamiliar neighborhoods occasionally.

Once, lost in an unknown area of Baltimore County, she stumbled around and looked for something familiar. Road signs, street names -- they were indecipherable. The thought of asking for help filled her with embarrassment. Someone might ask, with sneer: What's the matter, can't you read?

Finally, 10:30 at night, she pulled into a gas station, asked for a fill-up and inquired, "What part of Baltimore am I in?"

"Pennsylvania," came the reply.

Married a few years ago, she never told her husband, Robert, she couldn't read.

Now, sitting here at Cross Keys the other day, old hurts seem to well up for a moment.

"I didn't want him not to love me because I wasn't smart enough," she says.

One day, on a car trip, Robert asked her to read directions from a map. Dena said no. Robert was beginning to understand.

"You didn't finish school, did you?" he said.

At a party one night, everybody started playing Pictionary. You read a word and then have to draw the word. But Dena couldn't read it, tried to fake it, wound up drawing something off-target.

Laughter filled the room, and Dena felt shame. Her husband took the shame and started to erase it. He searched out a tutor through Baltimore Reading Aids, a nonprofit organization funded the 7-Eleven store chain.

The program matched her with tutor Margaret Proctor two years ago. Dena had to face not only her inability to read, not only her dyslexia, but also a sense of shame.

"I had to convince her it was OK to be her age and not be able to read," Proctor says. "I told her about Tom Cruise and Cher. They were dyslexic."

"And Danny Glover," says Leizear, pleased at finding herself in such special company.

"And Nelson Rockefeller," says Proctor. "Of course, he had other things going for him."

They began with the alphabet, and Dena felt humiliated. The few things she learned, long ago in elementary school, she'd long since for gotten.

From the alphabet, they advanced to primers: "Run, Scott, Run," the simplest of words building gradually into the most basic sentences.

Now she reads daily from the newspapers and magazines, and she carries a 33,000-word dictionary with her wherever she goes.

"I look up words all the time," she says. "I sound them out. Did you know that every syllable has a vowel?"

She says it with a sense of awe, which is lovely to behold. Something magical is happening to Dena Leizear. A world has been opened to her, and she's on fire to devour it.

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