SYKESVILLE - Linda M. Gamber has her high school diploma, but it means little to her except that she showed up for classes, behaved well and tried hard.

"What does it tell you?" she asks, displaying the 1980 South Carroll High certificate and a senior year report card showing A's and B's in subjects such as English and social studies. "That I went through 12 years of school and I can't read."

What does have significant value for the 28-year-old Sykesville resident are three "little diplomas" awarded by her tutor -- one for each set of skill books completed in the Laubach Way To Reading program, a leading method for teaching literacy.

When she finishes the fourth set of books, she will have improved her reading ability from about a second-grade to a fifth-grade level, says Elizabeth Tripp, Gamber's tutor since she enrolled in the Literacy Council of Carroll County Inc. in March 1988.

The one-on-one sessions twice per week not only have enhanced Gamber's ability to read and write, but have boosted her confidence dramatically, improved her job prospects, allowed her to participate more actively in the education of her two daughters and renewed her dreams for a better life.

"She has a long way to go in every area, but her horizons are broadening," says Tripp. "She has the ability to do more than she knows."

The signs of Gamber's metamorphosis over the last 2 years are evident.

Once shy, withdrawn and lacking in self-esteem, Gamber recently delivered a speech to prospective literacy tutors, an exercise that would have paralyzed her with fear previously, she says.

After working at low-paying, minimal-skill jobs since she was 13, Gamber now is working toward starting her own business. She is taking classes through Catonsville Community College to be certified for day-care work and to help open a day-care center at home.

"There have been things I wanted to do that I couldn't do," says Gamber, now working as a housekeeper at Fairhaven retirement community in Sykesville. "Only now do I feel confident enough to do it."

She doesn't want to be just a baby-sitter, letting children stare at TV or lollygag, she says. By improving her reading ability and taking courses, she will be prepared to develop educational projects, she says.

"I want it to be a day care (facility) where parents pay me to teach and not just play," she says. "You have to learn how to do it right to be a respectful, trustworthy business."

Gamber's occupational change -- whether or not her own business succeeds -- should improve her family's financial status, she says. Wherever she works, she will be able to supervise her children, Amy, 9, and Angie, 5, instead of paying someone else, she says.

Tripp helped Gamber calculate that she could net about $1,000 per month by operating her own six-child day care center, compared to the $50 per month she saves now.

Her husband, Buddy, 42, works as a body shop parts manager at a car dealership.

As a youngster, Gamber dreamed of being a teacher, then a nurse, "but my education didn't allow me," she says.

She criticizes the Carroll public school system, saying it failed her.

She wants to offer constructive advice to help educators deal more effectively with "slow learners."

"The Board of Education needs to talk to us to see how we feel," she says. "I'd tell them my experiences from Day 1 up."

Those experiences often were miserable, she says, even though she was a high school honor roll student who always tried to learn. She says she should have been held back one grade early in elementary school, but her mother objected, and the school system shuttled her through. She attended Freedom Elementary through second grade and Eldersburg Elementary through fifth grade.

"After that, it got tougher and tougher," she says. "Kids picked on me because I was a slow learner. I got locked in a shell. I had a lot of bad, embarrassing moments in school. Kids make you feel like you're that much dumber instead of encouraging you.

"Just now, I'm coming out of the shell, piece by piece."

She received the most abuse during her three tough years at Sykesville Middle School, where she was placed in regular classes, she says. Teachers didn't know how to react, she says.

She was enrolled in a work-study program throughout high school, which helped her mature, but did little to further her education, she says. She couldn't read, write or spell.

"I was in a class of goof-offs, and I wanted to learn," she says. "If you want to learn, you should be put in a class that wants to learn."

She received almost all A's and B's by relying on her memory and because teachers didn't challenge her, assigning work on elementary school levels, she says. Her senior year report card shows asterisks by her high marks, signifying a student "performing below grade level."

"Effort is not good enough for passing," she says in retrospect.

She says she wasn't ready to leave school, but teachers were unable to advise her on how to continue her education.

Her work-study program included jobs as a dishwasher, housekeeper and day-care assistant. She also worked for five years as a restaurant cook.

Following high school, she worked four years for two Carroll egg companies, packing and inspecting eggs. She was blocked from consideration for other jobs because she couldn't fill out an application, she says.

In 1987, she began working as a dishwasher at Fairhaven, a fateful move that gave new direction to her life.

Gamber's boss at Fairhaven, impressed with her work habits, offered the employee a promotion to cook, provided that she improve her reading so she could follow recipes. The boss directed Gamber to the Literacy Council, an agency Gamber never knew existed.

She called, got paired with Tripp, and soon after received her promotion. She has since given up the cook's job for the housekeeper position because the cook's job was too stressful, she says.

Gamber was eager to start the sessions, but wary that she would disappoint her tutor, she says.

Tripp has since become her most trusted confidant and adviser, says Gamber, adding she'll continue with her tutor "as long as it takes me."

She has progressed to where she can attempt to read papers her daughters bring home from school. She'll be able to provide more help to Angie, a kindergartner, than Amy, a fourth-grader, she says.

She has begun to notice Amy having some of the same problems she experienced in school, she says. She vows to monitor the situation closely.

"I'll see that they get all the help it takes to get a better education," she promises.

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