Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, Patrick Tomlinson shifted uncomfortably at the podium as he began speaking to his audience, a group of reading tutors. But a seasoned public speaker could not have been more poignant and direct.
His mother had helped him keep his secret, Tomlinson said, covering for him so people would not guess that he could not read or write. Then she died.
"All of a sudden, I'm stuck. I'm here alone," said Tomlinson, 33, telling of panic that compounded his grief. With a household to manage, he could not write a check or pay a bill.
In desperation, Tomlinson sought help from the Huntington Beach Library's Adult Literacy Services, a move that would change his life.
"I learned a long time ago how to hide my secret from everybody," said the Garden Grove resident, who works as a machinist. But now, "anybody who ever asks me, I tell them about it. . . . Now I can read."
"There are a lot of us out there," Tomlinson told his rapt audience. "We need you."
Tomlinson's turn at the podium illustrates what advocates say is the literacy movement's new direction. In Orange County, where experts say nearly half a million people lack basic language skills, students are taking the lead: making speeches, leading workshops, raising funds, recruiting volunteers.
With the fervor of religious converts, new readers here and across the nation are stepping out of the shadows, sharing their struggles and triumphs, enlisting others to the cause.
Al Bennett, literacy specialist for the California State Library in Sacramento, compares the zeal of new adult readers to that of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And like MADD members, he said, they are changing public opinion.
The dedication of MADD's founders made drunk driving "no longer a laughing matter and . . . absolutely changed the attitudes of America in a way I never would have believed possible," Bennett said. "Literacy's new readers are the same way."
Though there has been some resistance within the literacy movement to giving a prominent role to new readers, the students have won out, said Beth Broadway, a literacy consultant in Syracuse, N.Y.
"They were just relentless in their pursuit of participation," she said.
A 1993 survey by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that 40 million Americans, or about 20% of the population, had only rudimentary reading and writing skills. Most in that category could find key facts in a newspaper article but could not draft a letter describing an error on a monthly bill.
In Orange County, where 16.7% of adults hold bachelor's degrees or better and the median annual household income is $45,922, an estimated 450,000 adults lack elementary reading skills, according to READ/Orange County, which operates literacy programs at county libraries.
Tomlinson, a high-school graduate, said most illiterates either have someone to cover for them or become adept at bluffing their way through, fooling their teachers and classmates.
That was the case with Fernando Sandozequi, 28, of Costa Mesa, who admits to having skated through Estancia High School with far more interest in athletics than academics.
Though he graduated in 1986, he lacked the skills to go to college. Instead, he got a job installing telephone cables.
A decade later, with two young daughters to support, he was finally motivated to tackle his reading problem so he could seek a better job. He enrolled in a literacy program earlier this year and is making steady progress, though his task is not easy.
"I have trouble with words I have never seen before," he said. "Sometimes it is confusing because the letters are silent--like 'psychologist.' Who put the 'P' at the beginning of 'psychologist'? "
He hopes eventually to enroll at Rancho Santiago College and become a firefighter. "I don't have perfect reading comprehension," he said. "I am going to need to improve to go to college."
Carol Ball, 53, sought help when she was going through a divorce and suddenly had to support herself. The Costa Mesa resident has a form of dyslexia that makes Bs, Gs, Ds, Ps and Qs look the same. She graduated from Fullerton Union High School unable to read but adept at faking it.
"I sat in class and shut up," she said. "I copied term papers from my sisters. I could write, so I copied them over."
Ball signed up for one-on-one tutoring with READ/Orange County and has overcome her learning disability to the point that she now holds a job as an administrator for a real estate company.
"I was afraid I was going to be totally worthless forever," she said. "I knew that had to change."
That illiteracy could be so common in affluent Orange County may seem incongruous, experts say, but the fact is that California public schools generally are overburdened and underfinanced, which means youngsters with reading problems may be overlooked.