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In quest for literacy, he discovers self-esteem
By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- They lined up like accusations: liverwurst and pastrami, havarti and provolone, dozens of meats and cheeses stretching down the glass case with confusing, sometimes unreadable, names.
Brian Jeffries' first day at work in a grocery deli was almost his last.
"I thought there was no way I was going to get this," he says now, more than one month later. "It was the first job I'd ever had that was 95 percent reading. It scared me."
Jeffries, 22, never learned to read.
He is one of about 90-million adults -- almost half the adult population in the United States, according to the Department of Education -- with "limited" literacy skills, meaning he is part of a group that typically cannot read a bus schedule, write a letter explaining a billing error or calculate an interest rate.
The size of his peer group and inclusiveness of the statistics have been no comfort to a bright young man who, for most of his life, has been told he is "slow," who has had to finesse his way first through school, then through a series of low-paying jobs, who has mastered the compensating behaviors that mask the truth.
But a day came when he did not want to pretend anymore.
Brian Jeffries decided that he would read.
'I just didn't get it'
In its most basic meaning, reading is the visual recognition of letters grouped as words that express ideas. For Jeffries, there was a disconnect from the beginning between what he saw on a page and what his brain processed.
"I thought I was a pretty good student," he says. "But when reading time came, I just didn't get it."
Jeffries grew up in Maryland, the fourth child of hard-working parents. His father was employed at the nearby General Motors plant, his mother at a state hospital.
No one at his elementary school, it seems, considered that he might have a learning disability.
"They thought I was slow," he says. "I was held back in second grade."
The next several years were filled with humiliations.
"They made me feel pathetic because I just couldn't get it," he says. "In fourth or fifth grade, I finally realized I had a problem. I asked them to put me in special classes. So they put me with mentally retarded children and kids with behavior problems."
His father, Kenneth Jeffries, says, "Children called him dumb and stupid. It hurt him. It hurt us. We knew he wasn't stupid."
"When I was young," he says, "my parents had a gas grill in a box that sat in our living room for a long time. One night I stayed up all night and put it together by looking at the pictures. When my dad checked it with the directions the next day, I only had two screws out of place."
"The boy wanted to learn," says his father. "We were going crazy trying to find out what to do for our son. The school wasn't helping him. So I went to see my congresswoman."
He says that she looked into the matter and within a week, the school superintendent called to say a place had been found for Brian Jeffries at Kennedy Krieger Institute, a school for children with brain injuries and learning disabilities.
Jeffries was in eighth grade. He rode two buses for the 108-mile round trip from the family home in Westminster to Baltimore. He made progress for the two years he attended. But Jeffries had to leave his house before 7 a.m., did not get home until 6 p.m., and he worked in a restaurant at night and on weekends. He tired of the effort it took to attend the school and he wanted to be with his friends. So he returned to public school.
"It was very hard," Brian Jeffries says. "Most of my friends could read and spell. I tried to read and couldn't. I became overly rebellious. So I left high school before 11th grade when I was 18."
Fed up with a system that had failed him, he came to Florida with his parents when his father retired, moving into an apartment with one of his brothers, leaving behind the old associations of failure.
At that point, statistically, he had a 90-percent chance of remaining illiterate for the rest of his life.
He worked mostly in restaurants and hotels, sometimes holding down two jobs.
"I stuck with the easy ones. Banquet work was easy," he says, "because you listen to them explain the menu. You don't have to read it. And the set up is usually a diagram I could look at."
When he was almost 20, he moved into his own apartment and found his minimum-wage paychecks did not cover his bills. "I got in over my head," he says. "My car was repossessed. I was so depressed."
But the hunger to learn to read never abated. He looked, for more than a year, for a school that could help him. Remedial reading programs in the public school system are for students 18 or younger, and adult classes, such as those taught at Tomlinson Adult Education Center, are designed for those who can read at a fourth-grade level or better. Brian Jeffries appeared to be both too old and too unskilled for help.
"I felt like I could never be anything," he says. "I gave up."
Even though Jeffries had abandoned efforts to find a literacy program, his friend, Bob Hinst, had not.
Jeffries and Hinst met about three years ago, and, after his financial reversals, Jeffries moved into the house Hinst shares with his mother. Hinst, who works in landscape maintenance, is also a high school drop-out, but he reads well and has a General Equivalency Diploma.
"Brian was so insecure, so down on himself," Hinst says. "I kept calling around. Finally someone at SPJC (St. Petersburg Junior College) gave me the number for the Literacy Council. I spoke to Mrs. Gildrie. She was a dream."
Reading simple sentences
"No one is stupid. No one is unteachable. Everyone can learn," says Virginia Gildrie with unequivocal certainty.
Mrs. Gildrie, a no-nonsense woman of 79, has volunteered with the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg for almost three decades.
She oversees the training of tutors and the adult reading and writing sessions held every Monday and Wednesday evenings at Lakewood High School.
Brian Jeffries arrived there one night 9 months ago and began to hope again.
The Literacy Council's program is phonics-based and relies primarily on techniques and materials developed by the late Frank C. Laubach, who was a pioneer in adult literacy education beginning in the 1930s.
The workbooks are simply written and begin with basic sounds and words, yet the subject matter is sophisticated and does not condescend to an adult, dealing with serious issues such as financial problems, the death of a spouse, relationships with children.
The lessons stress the relationships of sounds to each other -- how to take them apart and put them together to learn words. The early lessons associate letters with visual images -- a lower case "b" is a bird and a "d" is a dish, associations meaningful for adults who have probably confused those two letters all their lives. Student are reading simple sentences by the end of the first session.
"He has that immediate satisfaction," says Mrs. Gildrie. "Suddenly, he is able to read something."
Central to the program's success, Mrs. Gildrie believes, is the one-on-one relationship of tutor and adult student, some of which have lasted for more than a decade.
Waiting for Jeffries that evening was Jan Frazer-Smith, a new tutor.
"When I met him in September," Frazer-Smith says, "he couldn't read much. But he was determined. And he had a voracious appetite to learn."
Jeffries quickly worked through the first skill book.
"He just blossomed," says Frazer-Smith. "He had an epiphany."
'I don't know how to read'
"The whole issue of self-esteem," says Sharon Taylor, an Adult Education Coordinator with Pinellas County schools, "makes it impossible for people to admit to themselves how desperately unskilled they are. It is a rare student who can say to you, "I don't know how to read.' "
Taylor says that probably only about 10 percent of the adults who need literacy help actually seek it. Both Taylor and Mrs. Gildrie say the stigma of illiteracy is so great that few students will admit to attending classes for fear of being ridiculed by co-workers, or worse, losing their jobs.
"Occasionally," says Taylor, "you'll hit on someone with extraordinary intelligence who has known all along at a deep, desperate level that he couldn't do what others could. He can articulate it when he moves to the other side of that veil."
"Once you get them to understand that it is not their fault, once you can get that message across," says Mrs. Gildrie, "they feel better."
Jeffries, who had never denied to himself that he could not read, stopped denying it to others.
"People would get impatient with me and say, "What's the matter? Can't you read?' " he says. "I finally started answering "No, I can't.' "
With Frazer-Smith, he advanced through two grade levels of reading. He bought The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe and began learning to read his father's favorite poem, Annabel Lee. His tutor bought him books, too: a modern translation of the Psalms and a book of quotations.
"You can remember a poem or a quote or a Psalm," she says. "And you always have it with you. They're little nuggets. He doesn't have to struggle through pages."
With most of his debts paid off -- always in cash "because I'm not comfortable with a checking account yet," he says -- Jeffries decided to apply for a job with more potential for growth.
"He told me flat out he did not read well," says Ron Zellmer, manager of the Disston Publix where Jeffries now works. "He's hard-working, an excellent employee."
Susan Meredith, deli manager, says, "He's doing great. He needs help sometimes, especially with special orders. But he's excellent with people."
'Losing yourself in a book'
Reading is a complex, interactive experience, enhanced by an ever-broadening range of experiences and associations. Because Jeffries could never read a textbook or a novel, he never had the hundreds of history, math, science and literature lessons that are layered over the years into intellectual texture and depth. He could not read newspapers or magazines and so had only cursory exposure to current events.
"You cannot make up for cultural deprivation," says Mrs. Gildrie. "You can teach a person to read. But you cannot make up for the years of learning they have missed."
She says that very few of her students read recreationally. Literacy for them is being able to read a street sign, a recipe, a business card. So she routinely includes history lessons in the weekly tutoring sessions, she distributes copies of newspaper stories she thinks will interest the class, and she brings books from her collection of contemporary and classic literature, which has been revised for beginning readers, encouraging them to read just for the fun of it.
"We don't just want to teach a person to read," she says. "We want them to understand the joy and excitement of losing yourself in a book."
Jeffries is not yet able to read a book, but he always carries with him a copy of Shakespeare's complete works, which Hinst found for him at a second-hand book store.
"I've always loved poetry and history and plays," Jeffries says. "I had a teacher -- the only one who really tried to help me in high school -- who read Julius Caesar to me. I've kept in touch with her. I want to be able to read Mark Antony's famous speech to her some day. It's hard, but I know I can do it."
He cherishes a dream of passing the exam for his GED, no small aspiration, according to Sharon Taylor.
"The GED is not just a little something," she says. "You can get a high school diploma and be illiterate. You cannot pass the GED and be illiterate."
Jeffries believes he is reading at a fifth- or sixth-grade level now -- the GED assumes proficiency at about a ninth-grade reading level, and his math skills are still far below GED expectations.
But Jeffries says, during a break in his day behind the deli counter, "I need to work at one thing at a time and stay focused. I want to be the best employee I can be. After I get my GED, I want to go to a community college and maybe study history. That's quite a ways off."
He moves along the counter, not hesitating when a customer asks for a half-pound of sliced turkey.
He still shakes his head over his first day of work, when he mislabeled and overpriced a pound of salami and a customer yelled at him.
"People like that are unhappy with themselves, not me," he says. "I've spent too many years griping about what I can't do. Now I feel good about myself."
He wraps the turkey and hands it to his customer. It is a fraction over half a pound.
"Perfect," says the customer.
"Almost," Brian Jeffries says. "Almost."
If you need help, or if you would like information about becoming a volunteer tutor, call the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg at 521-1117.
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