64-year-old artist earns degree from UMBC GLEN BURNIE


June 02, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

To the rest of the world, Lois Schwarz was a gifted artist, a respected teacher and a devoted wife and mother. In her eyes, though, she never measured up because she could barely read. Dyslexia caused her mind to jumble letters and numbers into incomprehensible symbols.

"I felt like a borderline illiterate," she recalls. But that was before she received a bachelor's degree in art and sociology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County two weeks ago, at age 64.

"It took a while for it to soak in," she said from her home in the Southgate section of Glen Burnie. "Now I am a university graduate. I never thought it was possible."

For seven years, she juggled classroom time, time for her children and husband, Norman, who had fallen ill with Crohn's disease, which attacks the digestive system, and time for her jewelry store in Savage Mill.

And she battled with the dyslexia that made school so difficult all her life. Dyslexia is one of the learning disabilities afflicting at least 4,000 Anne Arundel County students.

"It was a hell of a struggle," said Mr. Schwarz, who is retired. "She was taking care of me and raising a couple of kids and working part time. I just kept hoping she would do this for herself. She was smart, and all she had to do was get in an environment where she could work well."

Mrs. Schwarz struggled through school in her hometown of Bloomfield, N.J., in the 1930s. She read torturously slowly and failed miserably at spelling and organizing thoughts on paper. In elementary school, she was held back one year by teachers who wrote her off as retarded or just lazy.

But she discovered she had artistic talents and vowed to use them as her ticket to self-sufficiency. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. She completed a commercial art program in 1952. For 10 years, she worked as an advertising artist for Lit Brothers Department store in Philadelphia.

The Schwarzes moved to Glen Burnie in 1965 when Mr. Schwarz began working as an electrical engineer for the Department of Defense at the former Fort Holabird in Dundalk.

Mrs. Schwarz, meanwhile, built a reputation as a jewelry silversmith who taught art. She never imagined setting foot on a college campus, let alone tackling a double major. But in 1980 both of her children, Denise and Eric, were diagnosed with TTC dyslexia. At that time, Mrs. Schwarz underwent tests and learned she also was dyslexic.

She enrolled in remedial courses at Anne Arundel Community College, hoping to learn enough to help her children. She concentrated on spelling, worked her way up to noncredit English courses, then English courses for credit.

Five years later, she felt confident enough to pursue a degree. At Mr. Schwarz's urging, she enrolled at UMBC.

She registered for one course a semester. Because she couldn't take notes during class, she taped lectures. Several times, she was forced to drop courses in midstream to care for her husband after he had surgery. Still, she never got less than a B.

"At times, I guess I wasn't sure I was going to get through," Mrs. Schwarz said. "But I figured all I had to do was keep persevering."

Two weeks ago, she stood proudly among the graduates at UMBC's commencement with her own cheering section in the stands: Mr. Schwarz; Denise, 27, a licensed social worker with a master's degree; and Eric, 25, who has an electrical engineering degree and is working toward a law degree.

Now with a degree of her own, Mrs. Schwarz says she feels better equipped to write the speeches required to explain her work as a silversmith. And she has the confidence she lost so long ago.

"You have an inferiority complex when you're a borderline illiterate," she says. "A degree proves you're not illiterate."

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