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Her life is an open book

Paul Clinton

HILLSIDE DISTRICT -- For years, waitress Nodileen Nowell-Thornton took

food orders without being able to read the menus she handed out to



Makeshift coping skills got her through the work day -- remembering a

dish’s place on the menu, recognizing a few letters or even pretending

she knew what her customers wanted.

But the flawed system caused her headaches and embarrassment. Dishes


were often sent back by angry or confused patrons after an awkward

exchange. For almost 30 years, Nowell-Thornton suffered with the painful

secret of her own illiteracy.

Because of her inability to read, other basic skills eluded her. She

wasn’t registered to vote and she didn’t have a checking account. Unpaid

taxes accumulated as she took money under the table from the restaurants

and bars where she worked.

“I used to keep my money in an unread book,” Nowell-Thornton said. “I


used to stash it there.”

That’s all changed now and Nowell-Thornton said she couldn’t be more

thankful for the help she has received along the way.

Five years ago when she left New Orleans '-- a bartender with a broken

marriage -- she never imagined she would come so far so soon. Upon

arriving in Los Angeles, Nowell-Thornton checked into a a detox clinic to

treat her alcoholism. Once she had that demon beat, she was determined to

learn how to read.


“They have a saying in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) that you’re as sick

as your secrets,” Nowell-Thornton said about the illiteracy she worked to


Living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Hillside District near the

Burbank-Glendale border, Nowell-Thornton made what she said was one of

the best decisions of her life. She signed up for Burbank Library’s adult

literacy program.

It was 1994 and she had just undergone a battery of reading, writing

and mathematics tests at Los Angeles Community College. The tests

revealed a second-grade reading level and also brought to light the

dyslexia that drove her out of school in the eighth grade.

Once in the literacy program, Nowell-Thornton met tutor Barbara Weiss

who, in the time since, has been a friend, teacher and role model. With

Weiss’ help, Nowell-Thornton has mastered many of the day-to-day tasks

most of us take for granted, learned to appreciate Picasso and even been

to her first play.

“When we got started, she went full blast,” Weiss said. “All she’s

asking for is a little help.”

After five years under Weiss’ tutelage, Nowell-Thornton secured her

General Equivalency Diploma earlier this year. It will be another year

before she earns a high school diploma. There are still some college

preparatory classes along that road, but Nowell-Thornton said she is

following her dream to attend community college. She has remarried. Her

new husband, Curtis Nowell is a computer analyst who is teaching her the

basics of surfing the Internet and using popular programs.

As Thanksgiving nears, Nowell-Thornton said she has tremendous

gratitude for the help and friendship Weiss has given through the years.

“She has been a true friend to me,” Nowell-Thornton said. “She’s someone

I feel I can talk to and confide in.”

As she continues her studies, Nowell-Thornton is working as a waitress

at Don’s Restaurant and Coffee Shop on Glenoaks Boulevard. Stop by some

time, she’ll read you a few recommendations off the menu.