The conference room at the Pinellas Park Library is big and empty. The table is long. But the two women sit shoulder-to-shoulder, their heads nearly touching, each holding the edge of the same worn workbook. Ann Palmer, the woman on the left, slowly draws her polished fingernail beneath each word. Linda Barrett, the woman on the right, blinks behind her wire-rimmed bifocals. "The plants at the for … the for-est … the forest!" Linda reads. "Wow!" "Very good," Ann nods. "Keep going." "The plants at the forest floor are about a me … a me-ter high." Linda stops and looks at Ann, puzzled. "What's a me-ter?" For three years now, every Wednesday, for an hour-and-a-half, the women have been working together at the library. They're almost the same age, both mothers, both love the library. Though Linda used to hate it.
Ann, 56, is a former human resources manager who now volunteers full time as the head of the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg.
Linda, 58, used to live with her mom because she couldn't write a grocery list, couldn't dial 911, couldn't read.
Ann taught Linda how to hold a pencil so it wouldn't hurt her left hand, how to tell a B from a D by using her fists, how to write letters. Not just her name. All of them.
"A meter is about a yard, just over 3 feet," says Ann. "They use meters to measure things in Europe."
"Wow!" says Linda. "I only knew a water meter. Wow!
• • •
For a long time, for 30 years, Linda says, it didn't matter. If you don't know what it means to read, if you don't know what you're missing, how can you care?
You pick up little tricks to fool people, to adapt: Study the first letter of street signs, learn PAR- means it's okay to park. In restaurants, when the menus don't have pictures, just order a hamburger. Even recipes sometimes have symbols, especially on the side of box mixes.
Of course it's hard. Of course you screw up. Like that time she got a ticket for parking when the sign said "PAR-ade route." And that waitress who laughed at her in Morrison's Cafeteria: "We don't have hamburgers!" And all those boxes of brownies that never turned out. They need a picture that says you have to stir . . .
"When I moved to Florida, I couldn't imagine that so many adults couldn't read," says Ann. In New Mexico, she spent years teaching Hispanics to read and write English. But here, she says, most of her students are Florida natives who were just never taught — or never caught on.
Across America, an estimated 40 million adults have "below basic" literacy skills. The biggest group, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, is people age 65 and older.
These are folks who can't decipher a bus schedule or fill out an insurance form, who can't pay a bill or use a map or read a prescription.
Some dropped out of school to work, raise babies, join the service. Some skated by and earned diplomas. Many, like Linda, were written off as "unteachable."
In Pinellas County, Ann says, about 20 percent of adults are "below basic" readers. Her volunteer group, which started in 1968, gets students who have been referred from employers, social service agencies, homeless shelters. Volunteers teach reading and writing through the Laubach literacy program, a phonetic-based method pioneered in the Philippines during the 1930s.
Last year, 80 tutors in the southern half of Pinellas County worked with 87 students one-on-one in schools and libraries. In the past five years, they have helped more than 300 people learn to read. More than half of the tutors — and students — are older than 50. "You're never too old to learn to read," says Ann. "You just have to want to."
Ann's first Florida student was 83; when his wife died, he knew he had to be able to read his pill bottles. Another was a church deacon; he just wanted to be able to read the Bible. A mother wanted to write her son a birthday card. A father wanted to show his kids he could earn his GED. One man wanted to become a boat captain, but couldn't read all the rules.
Linda's goals are simple: To read stories to her granddaughter. To figure out the TV listings so she won't miss her nature shows. To bake brownies that actually taste good. And she wants to know. "You know," she says. "Just know."
• • •
Linda's dad was a carpenter. Her mom was a nurse, who worked long shifts at St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Linda has epilepsy, used to hit her head a lot. Her eyes were crossed. She squinted to see.
Before Linda started kindergarten, her mom took her to get glasses. "The doctor looked at her and said, 'If you spend 50 cents on glasses for that child you'll be wasting your money,' " says Linda's 90-year-old mom, Donna McGee.
"They called her an imbecile. They wanted me to put her into an institution."
Instead, Linda's mother enrolled her in a school where teachers put her in with the other "slow learners." The students stacked blocks, colored pictures, played outside. In all her years at school, Linda says, no one ever taught her how to count to 10, write the alphabet, sound out letters.
"They said we couldn't learn," she says. "So they never tried to teach us."
She bussed tables for a while in high school. Then got a job cleaning offices. But Linda couldn't read the labels on the bottles, so she kept getting the chemicals mixed up, burning her hands.
She married another custodian who couldn't read. They had a son they called Junior. Her husband left, so she and Junior moved in with her mom.
Linda doesn't remember her mom ever reading to her. So when Junior was little, she made sure he had plenty of books. She would show him the pictures, make up stories.
One night when her son was in first grade, he was sitting on her lap turning the pages when he looked up and said, "That's not what it says." He was on to her. Soon, his teachers would be, too. She couldn't write them notes, couldn't read the ones they sent home.
She wanted, so badly, to be a good mom. But there was so much she didn't know. So much she couldn't do. Before she could help him, she had to help herself.
• • •
Linda started asking her mom, her mom's friends, where could she go to learn. It took years. Baby steps. Eventually, she got glasses. Tutors taught her how to fill out a bank deposit slip, count change, dial 911. Ann made her meet at the library.
Libraries scared Linda. Only weirdos and teachers hang out at libraries, she told Ann. She hated libraries. Finally, she admitted, she had never been to one.
The first time she walked through those glass doors, she says, she got so angry she wanted to tear all the books off the shelves. It was like they were taunting her, showing her everything she didn't know, everything she had missed. She started crying.
• • •
"Now, before we leave, I have a surprise for you," Ann tells Linda late that Wednesday at the library.
She closes the worn workbook. Linda puts away her yellow pencil. Today, she learned the words "towering" and "numerous"; she found out that forests have tall plants; and that Europe is a bunch of other countries, far across the ocean.
In the three years the women have been working together, Linda has figured out how to sound out big words, to write complete sentences, to read on a fourth-grade level. (Her granddaughter is only 2!) She read a whole book on how to raise birds. She has her own apartment, and two cockatiels.
Every week, in the TV listings, she highlights her favorite nature programs. And that last batch of boxed brownies? Delicious.
Ann pulls a book from her striped bag. "This is for you," she says, opening the cover. "It's all about biology."
"Wow!" says Linda. "What's bi-o-lo-gy?"
"The study of living things," Ann explains. "Plants, bugs, animals, like all those shows you watch on TV."
"Wow!" says Linda. "I never heard of biology."
Ann hands her the book. "It's all about cells," she says. "The stuff of life."
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.