Late learners find the way Tutoring: Adults who courageously decide to overcome their inability to read find help from volunteers in a Homewood program.


September 06, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SOMETIMES IT'S THE little things. Like getting a library card.

Mamie Barnett showed up at the Greater Homewood Adult Literacy Program 28 months ago not knowing "where to start" on a printed page. The other day she got her library card from the Waverly branch of Enoch Pratt Free Library. She checked out a book and read it.

Little things to most of us, but at once intimidating and thrilling to Barnett, 58, who is now reading at the third-grade level. Who knows what could be next. The Bible, perhaps.

"I'd like to read the Bible," Barnett said. "I've tried, but I've got a way to go. I'd like that."

Barnett, who was forced by a childhood illness to drop out of school, is one of more than 300 adult "learners," as they are called, served yearly in the Greater Homewood program, located in the basement of University Baptist Church on North Charles Street.

She's one learner who wears her new literacy with pride, flashing smiles that could light up Camden Yards.

Others are not so open. Learning to read at 60 is not at all like learning to read at 6. Shame often surrounds adult illiteracy. For this reason, tutors don't contact employed learners at work. Some are reluctant to tell even their families they're seeking help.

"From my point of view," said Greater Homewood tutor Richard Batterton, "for an adult to acknowledge that he can't read is an extremely courageous act."

Some learners have their sights set on better jobs. Others, like Barnett, seek more in life than the darkness of illiteracy.

If Greater Homewood's clients differ in motive, they have one thing in common, according to Elizabeth Holden, the program director: "Somewhere in their background, almost all of them have had a traumatic experience in education."

They failed in school or were failed by school. Some have learning disabilities that were never diagnosed. Many got too old and too big to go back to school. "My parents wanted me to go back, but I just got too far behind," said Barnett, who grew up on a farm in North Carolina. "I would have been the biggest kid in the school. It would have been embarrassing."

Kevin Lester, 29, dropped out of Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden during the seventh grade. "It was a terrible mistake," he said. "I made some decisions about my life that just weren't wise."

Lester started about a year ago at the same instructional place as 6-year-olds -- breaking down words into their sounds. It's called phonics. "We underline the vowels," he said, "and now we're learning about syllables."

Lester hopes literacy will lead to a promotion from his job waxing floors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Greater Homewood's program is the largest in the city using volunteer tutors. Trained in a 14-hour course, tutors usually meet weekly with their learners one-on-one.

"First-graders have a curriculum," Holden said. "My 67-year-old learner doesn't have a curriculum. He has an agenda that he's set himself. We do test regularly, but in adult literacy, the process is as important as the outcome. We're talking about empowering people."

As Maryland secretary of human resources, Batterton oversaw dozens of literacy efforts. In retirement at 69, he's been volunteering at Greater Homewood for two months.

"I was always a general and never a technician," said Batterton, tTC who often takes his learner on walks to study street signs and billboards. "Now I'm finding out what it's like to be a technician.

"I'm discovering that tutoring can be extremely satisfying. If the learner is making progress, and mine seems to be, you're entitled to feel satisfaction that you played a part in it. But you have to be willing to acknowledge that you also played a part when he isn't making progress."

Books are available that are geared to beginning adult readers, but Holden lamented a shortage of material with adult themes, yet simple language. When adult learners like Barnett go to the library or bookstore, often their only choice is in the children's section.

"I felt badly for Mamie when we went to the library together," said Mitzi Nevitt, Barnett's tutor. "Two classrooms of kids were there on a field trip. It was just too intimidating, so we came back later."

The books used by Greater Homewood and other adult literacy programs feature simple stories about adult situations. "Kay writes a check for the rent," a story begins in one of the beginning readers. "She writes checks for the other bills. Ray asks, 'Have we spent the last cent?' Kay laughs, 'No, we have not spent the last cent. But we have spent a lot.' "

L "Charlotte's Web" it isn't, but neither is it Dick and Jane.

Barnett was so moved by her progress that she wrote a thank-you note for Greater Homewood's newsletter. "She did it entirely on her own, with no help from me," said Nevitt, her tutor. "I was so touched."

School gets new books and a reading challenge

Barnes & Noble booksellers donated 1,000 new books last week to Cross Country Elementary, the Northwest Baltimore school that lost its library collection to water and termite damage.

Barnes & Noble also is sponsoring a "One Million Minute Reading Challenge" at the school. Students will be rewarded for reading a total of a million minutes -- about an hour a week per student -- during this academic year.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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