Shirley Ashley flips through a folder of certificates she's received in her adult education class. She points to the words, but can't read what they say.
"I know that's 'Shirley Ashley,'" she says. She stops at one that says 'top performer.' "I know this is 'top' something. That means I'm doing good."
The word 'performer' is still a jumble of letters that Ashley, at 55, hasn't learned to decipher yet. Her face burns with memories of 40 years of asking her siblings for help.
"They would say 'what's wrong with you, you can't read?' I would cry. I used to say, 'Lord find me a school where I can learn for people that's on my level. That won't make fun of me.'"
One day her mother sat her down. "She said 'baby come here. Don't feel bad because you can't read. Your grandmother couldn't read, your grandfather couldn't read. Sometimes you inherit things, but just because you can't read, don't mean you're not smart.' She said, 'God don't make mistakes.'"
Approximately 15 percent of adults in the U.S. — around 30 million people — are at the low end of the literacy spectrum. They struggle to read a menu, a pay stub or a bus schedule. About 46 million find it challenging to do basic math. In Washington, D.C., the most recent federal research estimates nearly 20 percent of adults, which is roughly 85,000 residents, lack basic literacy skills.
Living with illiteracy
Ashley was always in a class for students with learning disabilities but says she wasn't learning anything. She felt as though teachers gave her a passing grade just to get her to the next level. In the seventh grade, after one teacher told her 'whether you learn to read or not, I still get paid,' Ashley decided to drop out.
To hide the fact she was illiterate, Ashley would practice the shape of the letters of her name so she could copy them on money orders. She learned how to give her mother medicine, based on the numbers and colors on the bottles. She memorized Bible verses so no one at her church suspected she couldn't read, and she limited her travel to a familiar route.
"I couldn't read the name of the bus, but I learned that the left hand side of the street would take me downtown and the right hand side of the street will bring me home," she says.
Ashley couldn't help her son with his homework; she could barely understand his report cards. She came up with a system based on letters of the alphabet. "S stood for science, so I said OK he was a B minus. R was reading, so OK, he got an A in reading."
As Ashley tells her story, her shoulders slump. It's as if she's weighed down by years of secrets and shame. She's seen those closest to her take advantage of her illiteracy, especially when it came to money.
"I would have to pay them, my family members, to come over to my house and do a money order," she recalls. "Sometimes I'd give them $25, sometimes $30."
I couldn’t read the name of the bus, but I learned that when you're coming downtown, you catch the bus on the right and coming back on the left.
A niece would fill out bank slips and withdraw money for her. But Ashley says when she called the bank to ask how much was taken out, she would discover more was withdrawn than she had asked.
One step at a time
About eight years ago, someone on a bus told Ashley about Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, a nonprofit in southeast D.C. She has attended classes on and off since then. Ashley initially tested at the kindergarten level; now she's reading at the second grade level. She has also learned practical skills like how to look for the word 'sodium' on food labels and how to write out checks. And she can read some of the verses in her Bible. These small victories are monumental.
"When I get my gas bill, I say 'wow it's from Washington Gas!' I can read where it says 'pay by July 17.' That makes me feel awesome!"
Ashley's life's dream is to write a soul food cookbook. The kitchen is where she feels most comfortable and confident.
"Put me in the kitchen and wow, I become brand new!" she says. "When I cook, there's nothing left over!"
Difficulty with numbers
Ernest Robertson is Shirley Ashley's classmate in the adult education program. He's struggled with reading all his life, but it's math that really trips him up.
"You use numbers everywhere you go really," he says.
The 58-year-old recently started using a calculator. He pulls one out of his bag. "This is my best friend," he says laughing. "I always have a calculator in the bag or in my pocket!"
Robertson dropped out of high school in Prince George's County, Md. because he didn't understand what was being taught. Since then, he's struggled with math every day — from buying a Metro fare card to figuring out how much he could buy at the grocery store.
"Sometimes I try to add stuff up as I buy," he says. "But that didn't work for me."
He was in awe of people who could handle money easily, especially bus drivers.
"They can tell how much five people need to pay!" he says laughing. "I just wondered how did they do it?"
Relying on others
For 30 years, Robertson worked minimum wage jobs, washing cars and cleaning buildings. When the car dealership where he worked went out of business, Robertson started doing part-time yard work He says no matter how many hours he worked he only charged $20, because he didn't know how to make change.
Robertson remembers vividly all the times he's been cheated.
"I think it's one price, and it's always something else," he says. "I think people can tell when you don't know how to handle money. They know how to get you."
It was difficult, plus it was embarrassing. Sometimes I go quiet. I just don’t say nothing. I would walk out. I didn’t know how to deal with it.
For years he would pretend he was having trouble seeing.
"I would say, 'oh I left my glasses, I can't see. Could you just do it for me this time?' Some people are nice, and some people will say 'I can't do it for you.'"
Robertson has the patient demeanor of someone who is used to waiting for help, and the humility of someone who's used to having to ask for help.
He says certain experiences are difficult and embarrassing. "Sometimes I would tell the teller you're overcharging me," he says. "I get quiet, leave the order there and I would walk out.
Gaining math skills
Robertson's math skills have improved through classes at Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, and he's now at the fourth grade level. He'd like to increase his skills to a level where he can help his grandchildren with their homework. And he hopes it'll help him at his current job where he lays tile floors.
"Measuring the floor and putting the right price on it, you need to know how much to charge them," he says. "They know you don't know what you're doing."
Robertson says it would be "heaven" to be able to do a job from start to finish and figure out what he should be paid, on his own.
He and Shirley Ashley, like thousands of other adult learners, are slowly and painstakingly trying to fill in the gaps of their rudimentary schooling. It has been more than 40 years since they dropped out of school and the long s
hadow of their unfinished education still follows them every day.
Video: A Trip to the White House
In D.C., research estimates nearly 20 percent of adults lack basic literacy skills. They struggle to read street signs, menus and maps. Many of them also find it challenging to do basic math. As part of our adult education series, the WAMU 88.5 news team decided to see how much reading and math are required for a trip to the White House. View our slideshow to see what we discovered.
Photos by: Jared Angle Produced by: Nathasha Lim
A version of this story aired on the April 12 show of Metro Connection. Click below to hear that audio.
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