Fantasia to Glitterati: Youth Illiteracy Is Real

American Idol champion says she’s finally learning to read

Next week, American Idol victoress Fantasia Barrino heads to Miami on a tour with Kanye West and Common, and for once she won’t be dragging her most troubling secret along. In her just-released memoir, Life is Not a Fairy Tale, the 21-year-old revealed that she is functionally illiterate. Halfway through Chapter 3 (with the help of ghostwriter Kim Greene), she writes:

“Not a day goes by that I’m not ashamed about my situation. If you hand me a newspaper, I just look at the pictures and try to figure out what happened . . . when people ask me to write a special message, I have trouble forming words right on the spot, so I write something short like ‘Be Blessed’ . . . something I already know how to write.”

Asked how Fantasia ever made it through eighth grade, Penny Wadsley, her old language-arts teacher at Laurin Welborn Middle School in High Point, North Carolina, says she must have read at least on a fifth grade level—the minimal requirement. There were about 25 students in her class, Wadsley remembers. Though she doesn’t recall Fantasia’s scores, she says, “Students can get D’s and pass on—if you’re not a behavior problem, which she wasn’t, you won’t be held back because it shows you’re trying to learn. She had some intelligence—she was street smart. I have a lot of admiration for her.”

Last week, Fantasia told the television show 20/20 that she signed contracts without having a clue what she was agreeing to, and memorized new songs by listening to CD’s while pretending to understand the printed lyrics she was given. With her career on the fast track and enough money to hire a private reading tutor, she has nothing to lose by coming out now—and she gains a cause. Fantasia could become the new face for a literacy project like Reading is Fundamental, helping the estimated 25 million in her shoes feel better about asking for assistance.

Now she’s not just a single mom from a poor background, but a woman talented and resourceful enough to make a new life for herself and her four-year-old after tumbling out of America’s inadequate public school system in the ninth grade.

Fantasia doesn’t blame her teachers; in her self-deprecating memoir she heaps all the blame on herself for not taking class work seriously enough. This must make those at her old alma mater (a federally designated Title I school, which means it has a high concentration of poor students) breathe a sign of relief. “Kids can cover,” says school administrator Lynn Kirk, who says she has a picture of Fantasia on her desk. “She had a strong, outgoing personality. That was her cover. I’ve seen it a million times.”

Experts say that of all those with minimal ability to read and write, only an estimated 13 percent are between the ages of 16 and 24, but Fantasia thinks the problem is greater among her peers than the stats would indicate. She writes:

“The real story is how Hollywood and show business wouldn’t want the world to know that illiteracy is a real thing that affects many young people, like me. It’s one of those ugly things that no one wants to talk about. That’s why so many young kids don’t have jobs—they can’t read a job application. They are not lazy and ghetto, which is what everyone says about us.”
 
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