For Betty Mandell, 82, the world is an open book


This is to announce, with considerable honor and respect for the occasion, that Betty Mandell has learned how to read.

She is 82 years old.

And she's making the announcement seven years late.

Sometimes it takes a little while to overcome a lifetime of embarrassment - even if it's an embarrassment she shouldn't feel.

She couldn't read because she's dyslexic, a disorder diagnosed by no one in 1920s Baltimore schools, nor in the medical community when Betty Mandell was growing up and trying to hide her secret from everyone around her.

It was a time when dyslexia didn't yet have a name, a time when no one knew it was a genetic disorder completely unrelated to intelligence, a time when children were pushed aside as simply being too dim to learn how to read and many found themselves consigned to second-class lives.

"In my time," she was saying yesterday, "they never knew anything about dyslexia. They put you in an ungraded class like you never had a brain. I was good in math, but I couldn't read, I couldn't spell. When I was 13, I went to work in a factory in South Baltimore. My people were poor. My parents were separated, and I was put in a home. I wasn't succeeding in school, so I was sent to work."

She's a diminutive, white-haired lady with an underlying toughness, whose words come out of her in bursts, as though she's been storing them for too long and they're frantic for release.

"The frustration," she says now, "you can't imagine. Now, I feel like a world has opened up. I read words now, and I read them out loud and I don't care who hears me, because it's so nice to be reading and I'm so proud of myself."

She was 75 when she overcame a lifetime of humiliation and went to reading specialists who diagnosed her problem, gave it a name and began tutoring her. By then, well into retirement, several times married, twice widowed, a woman who'd had two daughters and lost one, and two husbands who abused her for her disability, she'd spent a lifetime in hiding.

"Oh, I was sick, I hated myself, I felt like I was a useless thing," she says.

Out of school, the Great Depression coming on, she met her first husband when she was 15 and he was 18. Henry worked in a jewelry store that his family owned. He'd had osteomyelitis, a bone infection, and one leg had been amputated.

"I thought he'd be perfect for me," she says, "because he would love me for whatever I was. He had his affliction, and I had mine. But he never knew about mine, because I hid it from him."

They were married for 15 years and had two daughters, and then Henry died. He was 32. Betty was 29. She worked in a factory for a while, for a boss who never knew she couldn't read. Worked in a clothing factory, then sold clothing and linens for a while - both jobs desirable because no reading was required.

She married a second time. The husband discovered she couldn't read. He abused her for it, called her hurtful names. The marriage was over within weeks. She married again, was discovered again and again there was abuse over her inability to read, and she left this one just weeks after the wedding.

"I hated myself and wanted to commit suicide," she says. "I drank a quart of whiskey one night trying to kill myself. My husbands called me a dummy. They'd embarrass me. And what I married wasn't anything to be proud of. So I left them, and I went years where I never wanted to meet anyone."

For 30 years, she worked as a waitress at a Reisterstown Road deli. She couldn't write orders, so she developed tricks. You look like you're in a hurry, she'd tell customers. Tell you what, you write down your order, and I'll give it to the cook and we'll get it to you faster that way.

Her daughters were her joy, and also her deepest pain. Doris died at 35 from a brain tumor. Ann moved to California. Finally retired, Betty moved to California in 1985, near Ann, and began thinking more about learning to read.

She was 70. She found a tutor, but the tutor couldn't help. She moved back to Baltimore, met a woman who mentioned reading specialists. She took a test. The diagnosis was dyslexia. They said they could help her.

They taught her to break down words and put them back together again, syllable by syllable. Break them down, piece them together. A syllable at a time, a sound at a time.

"I still have a tough time with some big words," she says, "but it's coming along. And the other thing is, my God, I don't hate myself now. I read fiction, I read biographies. I read the newspaper and see what's happening in the world.

"The shame is gone. Now, I can read, I can write, I can leave a note, I can look in the dictionary and find out how a word is spelled."

Betty Mandell is 82 years old, and the world is opening.

But there's one more world she wants to conquer.

"I want to get my high school equivalence," she says. "Then, I'll really be proud."

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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