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A Native-Born and an Immigrant: A Stark Contrast : She Got Her Diploma but Not Literacy

Times Staff Writer

Sharon Scully hardly missed a day of school until her senior year. A bright and attractive young woman whose conversation is punctuated with frequent laughter, Scully said she had “fun” at Venice High School.

In that last year, however, she was absent 59 days.

“I didn’t want to graduate,” said Scully, who, after nearly 12 years of schooling, could barely write her name. “But they passed me anyway.”

Scully is not alone. According to a 1983 report from the President’s Commission on Educational Excellence, 17% of graduating high school seniors are functionally illiterate, unable to read and write well enough to fill out a job application, take a driver’s license test or write a letter.

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In addition to graduates like Scully, there are an estimated 1 million students who drop out of high school each year nationwide.

“I didn’t get anything out of (school),” Scully said. “I learned more history by sitting down and talking with my grandfather than I ever did in class. He’s 90 years old.”

Nevertheless, Scully said she maintained a C average through her school years by “being real quiet in class,” cheating on tests, asking friends for answers or guessing at true or false test questions that she could not read. She would avoid homework or have her mother help her and “end up doing it.”

“I was a good B.S.er, I guess,” she said, trying to explain how she was handed a high school diploma she did not deserve.

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Dinner Maneuver

Over the years, Scully, like other illiterates, learned to compensate for her handicap the best way she could. On a dinner date, for example, Scully would feign indecision and ask what her companion was ordering, then order the same.

There were trying moments, such as when a young niece asked her to read her a book or when she was unable to return letters from a friend who had moved away.

Scully also longs for the small pleasures denied her. “I’ve always wanted to kick back and relax with a good book,” she said, or read the newspaper over breakfast the way others do.

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But, Scully said, she tries not to dwell on the missed opportunities. “That only makes it harder,” she said. “You have to learn to get by somehow.”

She gets around the city by studying landmarks and by familiar street names--those she recognizes by sight, not spelling.

Employed for several years at a hospital equipment manufacturing firm as a clerk--and even as a secretary for a time--Scully has depended heavily on her memory.

Memory, Recognition

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Having started out on the company’s assembly line and worked in various clerking positions, Scully said she has managed to memorize hundreds of serial numbers and words attached to equipment, as well to recognize by sight the names of hundreds of hospitals the firm does business with.

A conscientious worker, she often comes in two hours early and stays late to learn new duties.

When one of her supervisors asked her to work as his secretary, Scully was stumped, however. She recalls thinking, “My God, they’re trying to make me into a secretary.”

Although she said she had written a letter only once before--to a friend who later told her it was unintelligible--as a secretary she managed to type letters.

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“It would take me a long time,” she said, explaining that she copied each vowel and consonant from an original draft, unaware of the meaning of the words.

As she approached her 30th birthday last year, Scully said she “took a good look at my life and said, ‘I gotta do something. I can’t go on living this way.’ ”

Fears for Future

Pondering the future and the possibility of marriage, Scully said she “figured that if I have kids and they ask me the easiest word, I’m going to be up the creek.”

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In the last year, Scully has started turning her life around. She has lost 40 pounds and begun to learn to read. She is tutored twice a week through a literacy program offered by the Los Angeles city library system.

Recently, Scully said she stayed up until 3 a.m. reading a book--the first she has read in her life.

Although she struggled several hours to read a few pages, Scully spoke animatedly of the wonder of discovering that the book, like a good friend, challenged and confirmed many of her most intimate thoughts and feelings.


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