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
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.