Californians Who Can’t Read: A TIMES PUBLICE SERVICE REPORT : The Hard-Won Freedom of the New Reader

Dianna Swenson didn’t enter the first grade until she was almost 8 years old. She was born in California, but her parents moved to Mexico when she was 2 and didn’t return to California until five years later. Swenson had not attended school in Mexico, and, while she could speak Spanish fluently, her English-speaking skills were not as good.

For Swenson, school was a disjointed series of classrooms and teachers. She says, “My parents moved a lot. Every couple of years we moved to a different area and I went to a different school. And the teachers tried to teach me speed reading when I hadn’t even learned to read yet. I was totally frustrated.” Both of Swenson’s parents were high school dropouts, and, as she says, “Education was not in the foreground for them.”

Moving through the school system, Swenson, like many non-readers, quckly learned how to bluff her way through tests and written compositions. As she says, “Nobody is totally illiterate. I could read a little bit.” Sometimes her classmates helped her. When she had to write a paper, she copied word for word articles in books and magazines. Adept at memorizing, she used that skill to compensate for her inability to read. Oftentimes, if she told teachers that she couldn’t take a test because she couldn’t read, they told her to “mark the boxes and do the best you can.”

According to Swenson, “I never caused any trouble in school. All the teachers liked me. I mostly kept quiet and they did not pay much attention to me. When I was a sophomore in high school, they finally decided that I couldn’t read and put me in what they called an educationally handicapped class.” The special class, however, did little to improve her reading.


Swenson did graduate from a high school in Southern California, but her reading problem has been a constant source of stress and anxiety. “I always knew there was something I missed that everybody else got--so there had to be something wrong with me,” she says.

Like may people with reading problems, Swenson bristles at the word “illiterate.” She states, “Being illiterate is like a stigma--you put the label on somebody and it means ignorant--underlined. That’s not the way it is. I’m not ignorant; I was a non-reader.”

Finding a Program

Divorced and the mother of two children, Swenson has been a painter for eight years. For the last three of those years she has been employed by the Santa Ana school district.


After trying numerous reading programs, she contacted the Newhope branch of the Santa Ana Public Library Literacy Services. For two years she has attended class twice a week in the evenings.

When she first entered the program, Swenson was asked what she wanted to read. Her answer was, “I don’t know because I have never been able to read.” Apprehensive about the possibility of failing yet another reading program, she admits to having her doubts about whether or not the program would work. “I was like a mouse waiting for somebody to say boo so I could run away,” she claims.

Swenson’s reading and writing skills have significantly altered her life. Now she can help her children with their homework. She reads the menus in restaurants, picks up the newspaper, and feels more confident when driving on the freeways. Previously relegated to an all-cash world, she now has her own checking and savings accounts, as well as a few credit cards. Recently, she renewed her driver’s license by taking the written exam instead of the oral one. She was able to understand the paperwork when she bought a new car and refinanced her home. Last year Swenson voted for the first time.

As she continues in the reading program, Swenson plans to enroll in a computer class at a nearby college. Now that she is divorced, she is responsible for keeping track of all the household expenses and doing her annual tax return. In addition, her children have a computer at home and she wants to be able to work with them on it.


Going Public

Swenson has been a guest at several literacy conferences and has been featured in a local television documentary. Going public with her story hasn’t been easy, but Swenson hopes that she can help to bring other students into literacy programs. Also, she talks to many of the new students entering her program at the library. And she wrote a letter to Governor George Deukmejian, asking him to continue funding for literacy programs in California.

According to Swenson, she will keep moving forward. She says, “Whether or not I ever become anything but a painter--that doesn’t matter. But the point is--I now have a choice and that’s number one. Reading has givewn me options I didn’t have before.”