One of the first times George Mooneyham saw Tommy, the 4-year-old who was to become his stepson, the child asked the man to read to him. Mooneyham froze. Finally, the boy looked at him in amazement and asked, "Can't you read?"
Mooneyham had been found out.
Whenever Diana Davies had to write a note explaining why one of her sons had missed school, she would open her refrigerator door and painstakingly copy the word C-o-l-d." Today, years later, she laughs and says, "Every time they were absent, they had a cold."
Robert Mendez remembers the first time he was able to share a book with his preschooler son, Matthew. "It was a Mickey Mouse book and I was able to read enough of it so my son understood it and I didn't feel like a total idiot. I got a little puddle in my eyes. He saw that and wanted to know why. I just said, 'Daddy has something in his eye.' "
To be an adult, and illiterate, is to carry a terrible secret. It's a secret that must be hidden from employers, friends and even strangers. Through guile and bluffing, some non-readers are successful--for awhile, at least--in keeping their secret even from the people they care about most--their families.
Almost inevitably, however, the time comes when they are no longer able, or willing, to carry on the charade. They have wearied of the excuse-making and of living in fear of being found out.
For non-readers, the decision to seek help can hit home in unexpected ways, sometimes solving problems, sometimes creating them. For spouses and children, literacy experts say, it's like living with a recovering alcoholic.
Juanita Stanley, executive director of Pasadena-based California Literacy, a statewide volunteer group, explains that often the spouse who can read tries "to control the relationship. They are the ones who handle the paperwork, who know what's going on, and the other person is, at least in this aspect, dependent on them."
If the relationship is an abusive one, she adds, the reading spouse may make threats to discourage the new reader: "You can't do this without me. You can't get a job. You can't leave me."
The new reader has new contacts, new friends, new emotional experiences the spouse cannot share and that, says Stanley, "can be very hard for a spouse to deal with.
"I know of a woman who had to hide her books from her husband," Stanley said. "The only time she could study was if she locked herself in the bathroom and ran the water."
Other literacy workers remember a man who bought his girlfriend candy and presents when she skipped her lesson and a husband who refused to baby-sit so his wife could study.
Even so, "I cannot think of an instance where the outcome hasn't been positive," Stanley said. "But it may be rocky getting there."
Coming clean with another adult is traumatic enough; admitting to your child or stepchild that you can't read can seem potentially devastating.
Typically, non-readers "try to keep it from the children in the family," says Jackie Pleasnick, literacy coordinator for the Hemet Public Library.
"I have a learner who's been with us about three years who'd just have cardiac arrest if his children found out he is learning to read. His wife is the one who helps them with everything. He's always 'busy.' "
However, when children are told, Pleasnick said, they often are "extremely supportive." Rarely has she found that children are embarrassed by their parent's problem. In fact, she said, "We have one learner whose youngest child, who is about 8, helps his father" with his reading.
At 37, George (Gig) Mooneyham is what's called a "new reader." Two years ago, he started working with a tutor, Glenn Henderson of California Literacy. Today, he is reading at third-grade level.
Until four years ago, when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, Mooneyham was battling a trio of demons: illiteracy, alcohol and drugs.
Growing up in Monrovia, one of eight children in a dysfunctional family, Mooneyham was a classroom misfit from the start.
"I couldn't spell and the kids were laughing at me," he remembered. By third grade, he was regularly ditching class. In fourth grade, he was shifted to a special education class and labeled by other kids as retarded. But by the time he reached eighth grade, having been held back a year along the way, there was no room in special ed, and he was returned to the regular classroom.
By ninth grade, he was experimenting with drugs and alcohol and his goals were to "smoke pot, drink whiskey, chase women and get high. Who wanted to learn?"
He stuck it out until 11th grade, when he "just walked out," an 18-year-old with admittedly "no smarts" and dim prospects. He got a job in a factory making sprinklers. He earned $81 a week, enough for a motel room in Duarte, liquor and cigarettes.
Today, Mooneyham is a self-employed house painter. He is not a contractor, he said, because in order to get a license he would have to take a written test. If a customer wants a written contract, his wife helps him draw it up.