Read All About It: How a Former Illiterate Overcame Her Fear and Learned to Love the Written Word

updated 10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 01:00AM

For most of her life Fran DeBlasio, 36, tried to conceal her shame. Unable to read the street signs or subway maps in her native Manhattan, let alone decipher warning labels on medicine bottles, she lived, like many illiterates, in constant fear of the unknown. An even greater terror was that friends would discover her secret. "I was embarrassed, "DeBlasio says. "I thought there must be something wrong with me."

DeBlasio's case is not unique. Studies suggest that perhaps one in ten adult Americans are unable to read well enough to complete this article. The costs to society—in terms of welfare and unemployment payments and under productivity—are enormous. With a growing awareness of the literacy crisis, a lucky few are getting help. DeBlasio enrolled last year in a program sponsored by Literacy Volunteers of New York City, a nonprofit organization, and can now read and write at a junior high school level. She described her personal triumph to reporter Jane Sugden.

By the time I reached junior high school I could read a little, but not very much. Whenever I was asked to read aloud in class, I felt terrible. I was afraid and nervous. I tried to tell myself, "Fran, you're smart. You have something up there." But I was confused and didn't know where to turn. My parents had separated when I was young and my mother supported me and my two brothers by working as a cleaning lady. She was a traditional Italian woman who always told us how important it was to get a good education. But even after she went to my school to try to find out why I was having problems, nothing changed.

I was going to public school in a working-class neighborhood in Manhattan. When I had to take written tests, I scribbled down some answers. I almost always flunked, but they still passed me on to the next grade anyway. When I told my teachers I was scared I wouldn't be able to keep up, they all gave me the same story: "Go home this summer and study hard on your vacation. If you work hard, you'll do better next year." But the impression I really had was they thought I was just too stupid to learn and would drop out sooner or later anyway. It's as if everyone just wanted to pass the buck and get rid of me as quickly as possible. No one ever tried to give me any special help with my reading and there weren't any experts at the school who knew how to teach people who didn't catch on right away. They just made me feel it was all my fault—that I didn't try hard enough. Meanwhile, I felt rejected and alone. Very alone. I get so angry when I think about that now.

Even though I had never been a discipline problem, in the seventh grade they put me in a class for kids who were troublemakers or wise guys. It was total chaos. All day, the teacher yelled at the students and they yelled back. It was no good for learning.

High school was worse. I went to an all-girl school where a lot of the kids were tough. Fights broke out almost every day. I was too frightened to use the John because girls had been attacked there, sometimes sexually attacked by other girls. When I turned 17, I couldn't take it anymore and quit. I figured, "What's the difference? I'm not learning anything anyway."

After quitting school, I didn't know what to do. Babysitting was one of the few jobs I could handle. I also worked at an amusement park in New Jersey taking tickets for kiddie rides. Once I went to apply for a city job. I didn't understand most of the application, so I asked to take it home. But she said I had to fill it out there. I said, "Never mind. I don't want this job anyway," and ran out. I didn't want to be a bum, but I was very afraid of being rejected.

Trying to get a driver's license was impossible because I knew I couldn't pass the written test. Even simple street directions were a problem because I was not able to read signs. At the same time, I was ashamed to tell my friends I couldn't read, so I bluffed a lot. I memorized landmarks in order to get around. Since I couldn't understand the menus at restaurants, I learned to be a good actress. I asked my friends, "What are you having? What looks good?" Sometimes at parties, people wanted to play games like Scrabble and I had to fake a headache. When people talked about the books they were reading—maybe a best-seller—I'd say, "I read sports books," because sports was one of the few subjects I could talk about.

By the time I was 25, my reading had improved slightly from studying the sports pages of the newspaper. Then a friend helped me fill out an application to work in the mail distribution department of a bank and—I couldn't believe it—I got the job. I had a tough time at first, learning to tell the difference between hundreds of different names. But my boss was very helpful. I learned to do the job well and began to feel much better about myself.

In June 1985, after ten years on the job, I was offered a promotion to assistant supervisor, but I was terrified because the new position involved a lot of paperwork. Luckily, a friend told me about Literacy Volunteers and arranged for me to meet with Barbara Greenfield, one of the coordinators of the program. When I told Barbara about my fears of taking on the new position, she volunteered to tutor me during her own free time. I was stunned that someone would go out of her way to help me like that. When I walked out of her office, I felt born again.

Within a few months, I joined a small reading group which meets for two-hour sessions three times a week. When I first began, I would read a passage 25 times and not know what it meant. Or I would get hung up on one word for a half hour without getting the sense of a whole sentence. But during one session a few weeks later, one of my tutors asked me questions about something I read and I suddenly realized I was giving her the answers. She said, "Fran, you understand!" I said, "Holy Christ! This is me. I can read."

The tutors also encouraged me to write. At first I had trouble putting down a single sentence, but before long I was writing stories and even poetry. I particularly like to write about my family. At a special meeting of my reading group one night, I recited a story I had written on my birthday about my mother, who died three years ago. When I finished everyone had tears in their eyes. I've written other pieces about my grandfather, who is 90 years old and lives with me. When he was in the hospital for a stroke three months ago, I sat with him every day and wrote about my feelings.

Things that once seemed impossible are now fun. I've read books about George Washington and Babe Ruth. I'm studying for my high school equivalency exam and my driver's license test. I recently went to see an opera and was able to read an English translation of the story that they projected above the stage. Wow, that made me feel good! Even watching TV is different. Now I can read the ads. I understand street signs, menus, all those things. It's like a great burden has been lifted off my back.

Recently, I've confessed to my friends about the problem I always had reading. One very close friend I used to play softball with moved to Florida several years ago and kept writing to me. She didn't know I couldn't write back, so she called me one time to ask why she hadn't received any letters from me. I said, "Oh, I'm just not very good about writing." I was ashamed to tell her the whole truth, so I had a friend write a letter for me. A few months ago, I wrote her a letter in my own handwriting and explained my problem. I told her how much I was learning and how exciting it was to finally be able to read. She wrote back and said, "I'm very proud of you. Very proud. I'm glad you told me." She understood.

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