Living between the lines

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Darline Carter sits at a small rectangular table at the Detroit Public Library-Elmwood Park Branch on the east side. Reading aloud, she struggles a bit when she comes to the words “barbed” and “snagged.”

“She has trouble with words ending in “-ed,” says her tutor, Judith Stettner.

Two syllable words like “swizzle” also trip her up. But Carter plows ahead and finishes the few short paragraphs with only minor difficulty. Several questions, intended to test her comprehension, follow the passage. All but a few are filled in with pencil. She and Stettner, who is nurturing and honest with her student, go over the questions she could not answer.

“Her comprehension is way above her reading level,” says Stettner.

Carter, 46, now has fourth-grade reading skills — a sign of tremendous progress since she started learning to read through Literacy Volunteers of America’s adult literacy program. When she joined the program more than two years ago, she could only identify letters and how they sound, says Stettner. She wants to help Carter raise her reading level two more grades. And the eager learner is determined to get there.

“I used to be shy coming to the library,” says Carter. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, they’ll hear me read.’ But then I thought that by me learning to read, maybe I’ll encourage them.”

Slipping through school

Carter suffered a long and lonely journey before she shared her painful secret. She’s the youngest of nine siblings who grew up on Detroit’s east side. Her parents could read, she says, recalling her mother regularly perusing the newspaper. And most of her siblings learned to read as well, except for an older brother.

Carter is not sure why she and her brother fell through the cracks, but she says part of what prevented her from learning is her shy and quiet nature.

“I just sat quiet,” says Carter, who also has a speech impediment that embarrassed her as a girl.

Her mother was busy raising her large family and didn’t have time to spend reading to her or helping her with homework. And her father, a construction worker, drilled into his youngest child that she should just understand and know things without having to ask.

“I was ashamed to ask my parents for help,” says Carter.

Going to school frightened and intimidated her, and she prayed each day that teachers would not call on her to read. An older sister tried to help her by regularly doing her homework.

Carter avoided school clubs or other activities for fear of being required to read, sparing herself pain and embarrassment by pretending to be sick so she would not have to attend school.

Even though Carter lacked these basic skills, she graduated from Martin Luther King High School in 1973. There were obvious signs that the young girl was having trouble along the way. She failed the third grade twice, and the ninth grade once.

Shortly before graduation, a chemistry teacher noticed she was struggling. “He thought I was having trouble at home,” says Carter. “I told him I couldn’t read.”

He was the first person she told. Carter says she would have willingly told other teachers if they’d bothered to ask, but none did.

When her chemistry instructor had Carter tested for reading, she failed, and the teacher conducting the test told her she would never be able to learn to read.

“And that just stuck in my head for years,” she says.

Certain of her fate, Carter took a job cleaning rooms at a small motel on Gratiot in Detroit, where she’s been ever since. “I thought if I can’t read, I better get me a job and keep it,” she says.

Expanding world

She lived with her parents then, mostly keeping to herself. But in 1979, she gave birth to her son, LaRon. The single mom says she was happy to have a child, but feared that her illiteracy would hold him back.

After LaRon’s first birthday, Carter moved into an apartment above her sister and next to her parents’ home. Not long afterward Carter was promoted to desk clerk at the motel — a job which involved giving patrons change and signing for packages. Her math skills were also poor, which made it difficult.

“The guy who trained me taught me how to use the adding machine, so that helped,” she says.

On occasion, Carter had to leave a note for her employers. But she manipulated this task by calling her sister for help. And when LaRon was old enough to spell she turned to him.

“I couldn’t help him read, but he did learn and he helped me,” she says.

Carter came to rely on her son in many ways. Unable to complete the health questionnaire at the doctor’s office, she would take LaRon along to help her or would say she forgot her glasses. But Carter also pushed her son to succeed.

“I didn’t want him to be like me,” she says.

When LaRon was a baby, Carter bought him educational games and helped him with his ABCs. As he got older and his math and reading skills became more advanced than hers, Carter enlisted others to help him. When LaRon was struggling with math, she went to the Detroit Urban League and found a tutor, to whom she paid 5 dollars a session to help her son.

The doting mother also forced herself to expand her world for her son’s sake. Even though she couldn’t read street signs (and hadn’t used the bus system for fear of getting lost), she taught herself to navigate by using landmarks as her guide.

Carter was ashamed that she could not read and kept this from most people, but she never asked her son to keep her secret. She feared that if she did, he would learn that ignorance was something that should be hidden. Carter urged her son to raise his hand and ask questions when he needed help in school.

But the teaching went both ways. “If it wasn’t for my son, I don’t think I would have learned a lot of things,” she says. “He helped me experience life a little more.”

LaRon also helped his mother learn to read by picking up books from the library, which they read together.

On the day before Thanksgiving in 1993, Carter asked her son to return a book to Detroit’s downtown public library and to pick out another for them to read during the holiday weekend.

“He knew what kind of books I liked,” says Carter smiling. “I like family books, books about families.”

LaRon planned to go to the library after school that day. But the 14-year-old never made it to the library or school. When LaRon left home that morning, he was hit by a car and died instantly.

About a year after LaRon’s death, Carter moved into an apartment a few miles from her folks. She says she turned inward to deal with her grief, but tried to keep busy. She befriended a partially blind woman in her apartment building. Carter, who walked the woman to the grocery store, told her friend that she couldn’t read but would help her shop by reciting the letters on each food label.

In 1998, her friend wanted to check out the computer room in their building and encouraged Carter to come along. Unable to read, Carter didn’t get very far. The computer instructor suggested that she contact Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), which Carter eventually did. By then, she says, she was tired of living in shame and secrecy.

“I really wanted to learn to read,” says Carter.

After making the initial call, Carter was set up in July 1998 with Stettner, her current tutor, with whom she still meets weekly.

National shame

Most students are not paired with a tutor as quickly as Carter was. According to Cheryl Birks, LVA acting executive director, 50 students a month who seek out the program are put on a waiting list — a small number considering the thousands of Detroiters who don’t know how to read or read only at a low level. Birks says LVA reaches fewer than 10 percent of those who can’t read, which is the case with most literacy programs nationwide.

In Detroit, according to the National Institute for Adult Literacy, 47 percent of the adult population reads at “level one.” Those in this category could pick out brief facts in a newspaper article, but could not draft a letter explaining an error in a credit card bill. About 30 percent of Wayne County residents read at this same level, compared to 13 percent in Oakland and Macomb counties.

Levona Whitaker is the executive director of Michigan Literacy, Inc. in Okemos, which provides training to tutors and other resources to 75 literacy programs around the state. She says that the number of people who can’t read is increasing, partly because more people are graduating from high school without having learned. And, she adds, in a technologically geared society it is more difficult for nonreaders to get jobs.

In Michigan, one in five adults are illiterate, says Whitaker.

According to a 1992 survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 21 percent of the adult population — more than 40 million Americans over age 16 — have only level one reading and writing skills.

Birks says that adults, unlike children, are difficult to reach because they also have to juggle work and family schedules. But these are not the only obstacles or the most daunting. It’s shame, she says.

Overcoming her shame was the biggest hurdle Carter had to surmount, but doing so means her world has expanded. She giggles as she talks about the checking account she recently opened, being able to vote, understanding her bills, playing Monopoly and reading the Bible.

“I used to keep in my little circle and not come out, but it’s getting bigger,” she says. “I listen to more news and to the City Council on cable. I understand it better. I want to know what’s going on in the world.”

“She really has quite a bit more confidence than when I first met with her,” says Stettner.

And her progress has not gone unnoticed. This year LVA nominated Carter “Learner of the Year.” She was flown to Kansas City for LVA’s national conference, where students like Carter meet and share their experiences learning how to read.

“Some people are not ready to come of the closet and say they can’t read,” says Carter. “I’m ready to come out and fly.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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