After business success, a search for basic skills

Literacy eluded Anthony Felder, not accomplishments

March 26, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

When Anthony Felder's turn at the microphone came, he sat down at a long table facing nine members of the Baltimore school board and its chief executive officer.

"First of all, I am shy. This is my first time speaking," he said. "I am a 35-year-old black male. I own my own business and I have five employees. I went to Baltimore City public schools for 12 years. I graduated in '85. I got a diploma and transcript and hold an average of 75, but to this date, I cannot read or write."

The room, full of dozens of people who had come for the regularly scheduled public school board meeting, went unusually silent.

Felder continued to talk, saying he wanted to change his life. "So I am here today to try to get the help. Someone tell me, what can I do?"

Felder had kept his secret close to his heart since high school, sharing it only with those he needed to help him navigate life - his mother, a business partner, his ex-wife. Even his 11-year-old daughter didn't know he couldn't read and write.

But in January, tired of hiding his problem, he decided it was time to get help.

Felder's story is remarkable - not just because he was able to graduate with a diploma - but because he refused to let his failure to learn to read and write stall his life.

Besides being president of the Custom Spot, an East Baltimore shop that does custom work on cars - installing stereo systems, televisions and other extras - Felder has a second job operating heavy equipment for a state roads contractor.

And he moves among circles of well-educated people. His relatives include public school teachers, and his girlfriend is a Morgan State University graduate and social worker.

Felder's hands are what has saved him. He can do anything from plumbing to carpentry to car work, and that gave him self-confidence and an income. "I can't spell Cadillac, but I know what to do to make it work," he said.

From fourth grade on, Felder remembers being assigned to special education classes at the many different elementary schools he attended. Finally, at Northern High School, he was integrated into some regular classes. And, remarkably, he didn't want to drop out, like so many of his classmates did.

"My mother made us go to school," said Felder, who was popular and athletic. "School was fun. I loved women."

Felder, who lives in Randallstown, blames the school system for his problems, saying he shouldn't have been passed year after year when he clearly wasn't able to do the work.

Although his aunts and sisters tutored him at home, no teacher ever took him aside to try to give him extra help, he said, or to suggest he was far behind his peers. He never got below a 60 in any subject, he said.

Instead, he went to his high school reading teacher and asked her to call on him to read as much as possible. The more practice, the better, he thought.

Sitting recently in the office of the Custom Spot, the shop he started with a business partner nine months ago, Felder read a letter from an insurance company haltingly, stumbling over any word that is above a second- or third-grade level.

Like a person learning a foreign language, he tried to decipher meaning without understanding key words.

Writing is much harder for him. For a recent bank transaction he knew he would have to write the word fifteen. He couldn't spell it, so he had a friend write it in his checkbook because he didn't want the teller to know he couldn't spell.

He had to use the word dollar, too, but that wasn't a problem, he said, because he knew he would be able to copy it from a dollar bill.

Over the years he has developed lots of ways to cope. He carries pieces of paper he calls his cheat list in his wallet. They are his life lines, his mother's address and phone number, the names of friends and important contacts and their addresses.

He hires an accountant to do his taxes, and his business was started with a partner who is literate and who handles the customers and writes down the orders in the front of the shop.

But then he began dating Pamela M. Boone, a social worker, who took him to a New Year's Eve party where he overheard teachers talking about how they don't even try to teach their special education students. A rush of angry memories flooded back and he had to leave the table, but he whispered to Boone that he had a secret to tell her before the end of the night.

"He proceeded to tell me that he graduated from Northern High School, but he's not able to read in the manner in which he should," Boone said. "He backed it up by saying, I can understand if you don't want to continue our relationship."

But Boone said her mind was racing through all his accomplishments, trying to figure out how he had managed over the years. "I just found it to be so remarkable," she said.

Boone wasn't willing to give up on the relationship at all. "So my stand to him was `Look, I am not going to become an enabler of your limitations. We have a situation here that has been going on for years. It is time that it needs to be dealt with.'"

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