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Californians Who Can't Read: A TIMES PUBLICE SERVICE REPORT : Learning To Read at 38: A True Story

Californians Who Can't Read: SECOND IN A THREE PART SERIES

September 11, 1988|Carol Orsag Madigan

"IT WAS LIKE BEING IN A ROOM WITH NO LIGHTS AND BEING TOLD THAT THE matches in your pocket won't work. And you believed it. You don't want to reach for the matches becaue you are afraid that maybe they are right. Maybe they will never work. And that was what I was taught to believe--that this brain doesn't work and it can't work."

Three years ago, Bob Mendez was asked to emcee a photography awards ceremony at an adult school where he taught evening classes in photography. While he was flattered, he did his best to refuse the honor. The reason: He couldn't read. When his supervisor refused to take no for an answer, Bob resorted to a tactic he has used all his life to cover up his reading problem--he memorized what he had to say.

With the help of his wife, Mendez memorized 10 pages of names, categories and awards. On awards night he stood before an audience of 1,200 and made not a single error. As he recalls, "Within a week I had memorized everything. Within two weeks, I knew how to do the awards even if they were out of order. I would stand in front of a mirror so that I would say each name slowly, distinctly and look as if I was reading. I didn't make one mistake; no one knew I couldn't read. My ego said, 'Look what you did; you got away with it; no one knew.' But I knew I had to do something."

What he did was contact the Glendale YWCA Literacy Council and was subsequently paired with tutor Glenn Henderson. For the last three years, Mendez and Henderson have met twice a week, using the Laubach one-on-one teaching approach. His reading and writing skills have improved considerably, and Mendez recently passed a promotional exam that he had taken and failed three times before. A custodian at an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Mendez has been promoted to plant manager. With pride, he mentions that he scored No. 1 on the exam.

A Long History of Covering Up

"For me, reading got lost in elementary school," said Mendez, who was born and reared in Los Angeles. From the 3rd grade on, he never got a grade higher than a D in reading and spelling. He didn't learn his ABCs until the 7th grade and didn't learn how to tell time until the 8th grade. When he knew he would be called upon in class, Mendez said, "I would go to the bathroom. I would get up the fifth person before they got to me and I would make sure I wouldn't be there. And, of course, they knew I couldn't read and they didn't want to put me through the embarrassment."

Despite his lack of reading skills, Mendez graduated from high school. In fact, he had 15 more credits than he needed to get a diploma. When asked how he managed to navigate through tests and written reports, he claims it wasn't very difficult. "I learned to cheat--simple as that," Mendez said. He added, "I had a wandering eye and a lot of luck. I despised cheating but I had to use it to get by. And when possible, I would be as honest as I could."

He was a likable student, never caused any trouble in school and had a good attendance record. In his senior year he was president of the pep club, a member of the drama club and involved in many other extracurricular activities. He said, "Those activities helped me because they taught me how to get along with people. If I only had to rely on my grades, I think I would have dropped out. But I had these other outlets which allowed me to be creative and be more verbal."

According to tutor Glenn Henderson, "Bob is eloquent and smart. But when I first met him, he was the consummate con artist." It was the combination of verbal skills, social skills and acting skills that allowed Mendez to cover up his reading problems. Mendez said that he learned at an early age, "If you come out positive, forceful and you take charge, then you are a leader. And even if you can't read, people tend to overlook it."

Now 38 years old, Mendez said he was always haunted by his inability to read. "I was brought up to believe that if you couldn't read, you were not successful. If you couldn't read, you were doomed to be a failure. You were stupid. Not being able to read bothered me a lot, but my attitude was that I would do something tomorrow, and tomorrow turned out to be 20 years later."

After graduation from high school, Mendez got a job as a custodian in a department store in Covina. "I was very glad to get it. I was almost thankful I got a job because I honestly thought that was all I could ever do," he said. In his 20s, he volunteered for the Army, served in Vietnam, and, after his discharge, went back to custodial work. After taking photography classes and passing an oral test for a part-time teacher's credential, he taught evening classes in photography while still keeping his day job as a custodian at an elementary school.

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