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Baltimore City storeroom clerk labors toward his literate future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Each time James Willis completes an order for a city sewer crew, listing the pipe, cement or other supplies needed for a job, he savors the written slip as an accomplishment.

"It feels good to fill a paper out and give it to somebody," he said. "It says I can read, right?"

Right. In three years of study, Mr. Willis, 42, has progressed from almost complete illiteracy to a reading level between third and fourth grades, good enough to make his living by those skills as a storeroom clerk at the Baltimore Water/Wastewater Division.

Mr. Willis will attempt to read this story, though it will take time to sound out many of the words.

A previous story that ran in The Evening Sun two years ago, after several months of observing his struggle to learn, was read to him by his wife, Donna, in their Formstone-front rowhouse near Patterson Park.

In the interim, the gains have accumulated to a competence, and almost as important, a self-confidence and independence in a man who only a few years ago had to guess at the destination signs on city buses. The change is most evident in daily details:

* When his wife says she'll be late coming home from work, Mr. Willis now cooks by following the directions on boxes of instant potatoes and macaroni dishes. Before, he would only assemble the boxes by the stove and await her return.

* He rereads for amusement the short stories that are part of his homework and classwork, such as "Pete's TV Shop." It's a success story about a man who moves to the United States from Canada, works in a TV repair shop and eventually owns one. "It was pretty good, so I read it again," he explained.

* His previously fixed television-watching schedule is in flux, now that he can find his way around the TV listings.

* He delves into the newspaper for cartoons, whereas once he had to pretend to read a cartoon clipping that his in-laws were passing around for fun, and laugh at it lest they guess that he was illiterate.

* His conversation is purged of much of its former grammar of self-defeat.

One of the main obstacles for adults who can't read is a legacy of failure, starting with trouble learning as children in school.

When Mr. Willis was 14, his sixth-grade teacher sent him to a vocational school on Eastern Avenue, known to him and others only as "Dummies' Paradise," where he remembers reading sentences like "see the cat." He dropped out as soon as the law permitted, a few weeks after his 16th birthday.

Attempts to learn as an adult fizzled with boredom and discouragement, until he went three years ago to an adult literacy program at the Southeast Community Organization, better known as SECO, located in a former parochial school building on South Wolfe Street.

Sometimes when he stumbled over a word, a letter, a pronunciation, he would condemn himself as a "dummy." "You can't teach this dummy to read," he would say.

Carole Burkhart, who still tutors him for the SECO program, has made a point of exorcising that word from his speech, in hopes the defeatist attitude would go with it.

Now Mr. Willis only occasionally lets the word slip, and always in jest, to get a rise out of his tutor in their bantering, sometimes bickering relationship.

"I'm not a dummy," he says nowadays, citing his current career tasks. "If I was a dummy, I wouldn't be able to fill out all those words on the paper."

Mr. Willis' job change came about after an injury while he was working on one of the sewer crews that he now supplies from the storeroom. He had joined the crew eight years ago.

After hurting ligaments in his left arm when his jackhammer got stuck between curb and pavement, Mr. Willis was off work for about a month.

He returned in February to light duty, fetching supplies in the storeroom until the senior storekeeper, Walt Blimline, suggested that he help write supply orders.

"I don't know how good I am in my reading," he told Mr. Blimline, almost in protest.

"I didn't think I was good enough to do it," Mr. Willis said.

But it was enough for Mr. Blimline that he was learning how.

"This storeroom will help you with your reading," the boss told him.

At first, Mr. Willis puzzled over the handwriting of crew leaders requesting supplies. When he asked what the words were, he didn't always know how to spell them for his order ticket. But he asked.

"If there's any mistakes, I teach him to spell them," said Mr. Blimline, pointing out that Mr. Willis' eagerness to learn overrides his limited literacy in fitness for the job. "He's an excellent learner, and that's what it takes."

Mr. Willis now goes to work at 7 a.m., an hour and a half early, partly to review the accuracy of the orders he filled out the day before.

Normally the job goes to someone with office experience, Mr. Blimline said. But he said that within a year, Mr. Willis might be ready to take the test for moving from temporary to permanent status in the storeroom so he can pursue a career in clerical work.

Mr. Willis said without the hazard pay that goes with working on the sewer crew, his storeroom paycheck is a few dollars less. But the change is more than worth it.

"If it wasn't for the storeroom, I wouldn't be learning all these new words," Mr. Willis said, producing a list of some of the supplies he writes on his tickets -- Johnson & Johnson Wax, cement, wheelbarrow, sheathing, pine oil and more.

With these and many more words under his command, Mr. Willis will be ready in the fall to enter an evening class with other learners.

The move will break three years of one-on-one tutoring with Ms. Burkhart.

Changing work schedules and drop-outs often break up a tutor-learner team long before that. But Ms. Burkhart said, "I can't just drop him." And Mr. Willis has never missed a tutoring appointment or a homework assignment.

In addition to leading him through word drills and the reading of short stories, Ms. Burkhart had pushed Mr. Willis into applying his new skills toward greater independence.

She got him rooting around the TV listings by telling him that otherwise, "You might be missing something."

She urged him to make an excursion to the store with his own grocery list. And when he seemed to be squinting over his reading, she persuaded Mr. Willis to get his eyes checked, but only after promising to do so herself.

Each came home with a prescription for glasses.

Mr. Willis still fusses with Ms. Burkhart over his workload, despite his success with it.

"I know it's helping me out, but maybe I'm getting tired of it," Mr. Willis said. "Sometimes I want to quit, but I got to get where I want to get at."

First, he wants a driver's license, for commuting to work, especially if he and his wife realize their plans to move to Baltimore County -- maybe Dundalk or White Marsh.

He hopes to get a high school equivalency diploma, or at least some certification that he is proficient in reading and writing. He says he needs such credentials to advance to the point of perhaps supervising others someday, reversing his career pattern of always being bossed.

Mr. Willis is persuaded by his own eyes, as they follow new texts, that he's getting there.

"I'm still a laborer," he said. "But I'm laboring with my mind."

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