ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Ulysses Martin and his volunteer tutor sat together on a Monday evening at his apartment, writing up an ad for the 1978 Lincoln Continental that Martin wants to sell.
This simple act may not sound like much to most adults, but for Martin, 59, it marks a major accomplishment.
Martin never learned to read.
“I could read very, very little. I just couldn’t catch it in school,” said Martin, who went through the 11th grade in his native South Carolina. “Back then, they just passed you.”
Martin’s situation isn’t as unusual as it may seem.
According to various estimates, as many as one in seven – up to 14 percent – of adults in Anne Arundel County read at or below the fifth-grade level.
Martin, who grew up picking cotton in the summers, moved to Maryland 37 years ago.
He has worked in warehouses and sawmills, and on construction sites. He has cleaned bathrooms in hospitals and night clubs.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” he said.
Martin’s passion is music, and as a singer in a quartet, he learned the words to many songs by listening to the radio. His longtime tutor, Stanley Milesky, hit upon an idea: supplement the standard reading materials by having Martin see the words to some familiar songs.
Martin soon learned to read on a karaoke machine the words to “My Girl” and “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
“We’ve written Christmas cards, made grocery lists and learned to read airport signs,” Milesky said of the progress his student is making.
Milesky, who lives in Severna Park, is on the board of the nonprofit Anne Arundel County Literacy Council. He is one of about 180 volunteer tutors working in the county. Each tutor generally has one student.
“It is rare that I leave Ulysses and don’t feel that I got more out of it than he did,” said Martin, who works as Howard County deputy finance director. “What you come away with is you feel better about yourself, that you have gotten more than you have given.”
Most tutors and students meet an hour a week and work together for two to three years. The council advises tutors and students to meet in public places, until they get to know each other well.
Milesky and Martin, who have become good friends over the 10 years they have worked together, meet at Martin’s Glen Burnie apartment.
Unfortunately, there are not enough tutors to go around.
Board president Vinny Goldsmith said that after a request comes in it can take up to three months to find a tutor for a particular student.
Tutors undergo a day of free training. Upcoming sessions are March 26 and April 16, at the Edgewater branch of the public library.
“The training is not hard – six or seven hours, and I enjoyed it,” said Deale resident Charles Fort, who began tutoring over a year ago.
Fort spends about 15 minutes preparing for each hour-long session with his student.
“All you have to do is know how to read, to teach it,” Fort said. “If you give up one TV program a week, you can tutor.”
Dwede Wilson needs help reading.
On a recent Friday night, she and her Literacy Council tutor, Dixie Catlett, huddled together in the cafe of a Super Fresh Market in Odenton, where they worked nonstop for an hour.
The two laughed at the oddities of the English language, such as what happens when you add an “e” to “we” or “shin,” and end up with completely new words.
And then there is the similarity of “lie” and “deceive.”
“There are many words that mean about the same thing, but it’s like spice, it gives a different flavor,” Catlett explained to Wilson.
Wilson, 26, an immigrant from Liberia, is married to a soldier stationed at Fort George G. Meade. She wants to get her beautician’s license, but before she can do that, she has to earn her GED. And before she can earn the GED, she has to learn to read.
Wilson has a son, 3, and Catlett, a mother and a business consultant with an MBA, is helping her pick books to read to him. One of the readings was “Happy Birthday, Moon.”
“You want to read to him, to make him love to read,” Catlett told Wilson. “Ask him questions (about the readings). You want him to be thinking about the story, and not just listening.”
The pair moved to the textbooks, and after a while, Catlett asked, “Are you getting tired?”
“No,” Wilson said, as she turned to another assignment and waded in.
Fort’s student in Deale, Harvey Robinson, 47, grew up in one of the roughest parts of Washington, D.C. and quit going to school after the eighth grade. He never learned to read.
“I used to lie and tell them that as a child I got lead poisoning,” Robinson said.
One night recently, Fort and Robinson were at the South County Library, and Fort was teaching him how to fill out a check.
Robinson became interested in learning to read about a year ago, when he went to take the GED, and a counselor told him he needed to call the Literacy Council.
Tutors are scarce in south county, and Robinson had to keep calling until someone gave his name to Fort.
Since then, Robinson has taken to watching “Jeopardy” and doing word games. He feels a lot more confident, too.
“We have all got gold in us,” he said, “and we just have to dig deeper to see it.”
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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)