- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

Sandra Johnson never thought words like "inspiring" applied to her.
The D.C. woman was thrilled for the children she coached when she learned her Benning Park Pirates would be playing T-ball for yesterdays game on the South Lawn of the White House. But when she got word on Friday that first lady Laura Bush wanted to meet her and personally congratulate her for overcoming illiteracy, she was beside herself.
"I was totally overwhelmed," she said. "This is like a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
Miss Johnson, 37, a housekeeper at Prince Georges Hospital Center, has been learning to read in one-hour sessions twice a week with volunteers from the Washington Literacy Council for the past nine years.
Last week, she completed the councils Wilson reading program and couldnt have asked for a better graduation gift than an audience with the first lady.
"It was fantastic," Miss Johnson said yesterday. "She was so proud of me and told me to keep on doing what I do."
Mrs. Bush, a former teacher, has made literacy one of the cornerstones of her agenda. The two women embraced warmly amid a crowd in the stands after the game and spoke for several minutes. The first lady introduced Miss Johnson to her mother-in-law, former first lady Barbara Bush. Miss Johnson also received a handshake from the president.
While Miss Johnson was thrilled with the attention, she admitted she has had some misgivings about letting people know about her struggle to learn how to read.
"In a way, Im kind of scared," Miss Johnson said. "But maybe somebody will see this and theyll say, 'Hey, I can get help, too. Its hard but its worth it."
Miss Johnson dropped out of a D.C. public school in the ninth grade when her illiteracy became embarrassing. She spent years hiding the fact that she couldnt read. She described little tricks people devised to disguise their illiteracy.
She obtained jobs through employment programs that filled out her paperwork and often wore a brace on her hand on days when she knew she would be asked to write. Most times, she could pick out big, recognizable words like city names or grocery store names, but she struggled with her spelling.
At 28, Miss Johnson copied down the number for the Washington Literacy Council. It took three more years for her to gather the courage to place the call, but since then she hasnt looked back. She is now taking GED preparatory classes four nights a week and hopes to go to college, maybe the University of the District of Columbia, and study to work with disabled children.
Vearn McDowell, who manages the Pirates, knew Miss Johnson for seven years before learning she couldnt read. He calls her progress "astonishing."
Bethany Young, a board member at the Washington Literacy Council, called Miss Johnson "one of our great success stories."
She often takes time before and after practice to help the children she coaches in T-ball and basketball learn to put sounds and letters together when she sees they are struggling. She also speaks to teachers to let them know how to spot children who may be sliding through the cracks in the classroom and offers advice on what methods best worked for her.
At the hospital where she works, Miss Johnson was too shy to tell even friends about her reading problems. But when she heard she would meet Mrs. Bush, she prepared them by saying they might learn something different about her this week but that she is still the same person she has always been just a little better.


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