Readers-to-be bravely write a better life story


In J. B. Hanson's class on North Charles Street, men are changing the past to the future, literally.

"All right," Hanson says, "what we're going to do today is deal with verbs. Turn to page 69."

The city of Baltimore is encrusted in hard-core social problems -- crime, poverty, illiteracy -- but here's J. B. Hanson, one man trying to lead a few others to the future tense.

He works for Maryland New Directions and conducts this English class in a big, windowless room of an office building on North Charles Street. His students, young and middle-aged men who want to learn to read and write, sit at tables.

One of them, William Johnson, 6-foot-6 and smartly dressed, sits alone, across the room, away from the others.

"Sometimes," Hanson says, "the present tense can be used to show future action. For instance: 'He left for Greece.' That's past tense. But if we said: 'He leaves for Greece,' we'd be making it future tense. And another way to do it is by adding something to the sentence -- 'next week' -- to make it future tense: 'He leaves for Greece next week.'"

Now Hanson, who has been teaching this particular group of men since April, starts the prime exercise of the two-hour class: Changing the past to the future.

He approaches William Johnson, a 52-year-old man who dropped out of the seventh grade when he was 16.

"I got real tall," Johnson explains why adults decided to take him out of school. "The teachers did my homework for me and signed my name and passed me through each grade. I was the second oldest of 12 children, and my father needed me to work. I left school and went to work for an A'rabber. I couldn't read nor write."

"William," J. B. Hanson says now, 36 years later. "The sentence is, 'The Lakers and Celtics played in Boston.' First, identify the verb."

There's a long pause. Johnson, hunched over his English manual, carefully examines each word in the simple sentence, then says: "Played."

"Right," says Hanson. "Now, how will you put it in future tense?"

Another long pause, the only sound in the room the hum of an electric fan.

"The Lakers," Johnson hesitates, "and the Celtics . . . will play in Boston."

"That's right," Hanson says.

"What else can you add to make it future tense?"

Johnson looks up and frowns.

"Tomorrow?" Hanson asks. "What if you add the word 'tomorrow'?"

"The Lakers," Johnson struggles on, "and the Celtics play . . . in Boston . . . tomorrow."

William Johnson looks up and smiles a little. He just stepped another inch closer to a high school equivalency diploma, which is his big goal in life. That's why he went to New Directions.

"Want to be able to read that job application form," Johnson says.

He's hoping his new one will be better than the old ones. He's been a custodian, a mechanic, a cabdriver. He wants to do better. William Johnson has more pride and determination than educated men half his age.

"I'm doing real good since I started," he says of the New Directions class. "If I can read, I can fill out that job application by myself, right? In case a job comes up where I have to read, I want to be able to, right? So I can better my condition, right? You've got to learn how to read if you want to get somewhere."

Especially if there's no one there to do the reading for you.

That's the case with Johnson. He's divorced. His kids are grown up. He lives with his mother in West Baltimore. His last job lasted only two months -- he was driving a cab until a passenger stuck a gun to his head -- and, before he looks for another job, Johnson wants to learn to read and write.

He's one of the legion of American adults who, somehow, get by with neither skill.

According to a four-year federal study released last week, nearly half the nation's 191 million adult citizens can't do simple things like write a letter, detect a billing error or calculate the amount of carpeting needed to cover a room.

It's estimated that 20 percent of the adult population is illiterate.

William Johnson wants out of that sad minority. J. B. Hanson says most of the men who take his classes feel the same way.

"I always used to wish I could read," William Johnson says. "But just wishin' something isn't going to do it. You gotta get off your butt. If you don't get off your butt, you're never going to have anything. I want to get out there and get something for myself. This class I'm taking now, I'll tell you one thing. J. B is the best teacher I had in my life."

He might have been the only teacher who really cared.

"It could be snow 20 feet deep and I'd be here," says William Johnson. "Twenty feet of snow . . . I'll tell you that."

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