`I didn't feel whole until I could read'

Until 36-year-old David Smith learned to read, he felt as though he was ``just wandering the earth. . . . I had no hope . . . I was without a foundation.'' Mr. Smith, who is black, is a graphic artist in Atlanta. Up until four years ago, he was illiterate. He had graduated from a Jacksonville, Fla., public high school in 1970 ``mostly by faking it,'' he says.

Still, he had an urge to learn. After a short, unsuccessful encounter with a Jacksonville reading program, Smith moved to Atlanta to pursue his art.

That's where he found Literacy Action -- right after being unable to read the contract of an Atlanta art gallery that had offered to display his work.

Now, he dates his life from that time. ``I didn't feel whole until I could read,'' he says. ``I had to be a follower -- rely on what other people said.'' He might hear about Wall St. or d'etente, he says, but he ``couldn't read about them independently.''

He used to think reading ``was kind of like magic.'' People who could read, he assumed, ``were just smarter than I was.'' But the systematic approach to reading taken at Literacy Action changed Smith's mind about himself. He learned he could ``break a sentence down, and put it back together.''

He did so well, in fact, that now he tutors entering students in the program.

An important moment in Smith's trip toward literacy came when he admitted to himself that learning to read was a worthy goal. ``Once I made up my mind I was going to learn, I didn't have any shame,'' he says. In fact, he found friends willing to help him. ``You can quickly spot who will help, and who won't,'' he says.

Still, it wasn't easy. There were plenty of dark days. ``I was over 30 and the whole world was going on. You feel like time is running out on you.''

But the benefits eventually outweighed the pain. ``I was tired of going out to eat and asking for whatever the other person had.'' He will no longer make the mistake, as he did one Mother's Day, of giving his mother a mother-in-law card. ``You can't imagine the change in my life.'' Everyday activities -- laundry, banking, using the postal service, driving, voting -- are no longer a series of ``brutal obstacles.'' Plus, he says, ``with a new computer age coming -- I mean, the world reads. . . .''

Literacy Action staff members say that when Smith learned to read, he also overcame a severe stuttering problem. He says his earning power has increased 60 percent (he now qualifies for additional part-time work). It's also been a great satisfaction that he can read to his three-year-old daughter. ``I buy her a lot of books!''

The highlight of the past three years for Smith came when he visited a local art museum featuring a replica of Michelangelo's ``David.'' Tears came to his eyes, he said, when ``I was able to read what Michelangelo said about his David -- that he could already see David in the stone, but that he wanted to chip away the stone so that others could see too. I'm not a great artist, but I understood some of that. It just blew me away -- blew me away.''

``I read it myself.''

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