Fantasia to Glitterati: Youth Illiteracy Is Real
Next week, American Idol victoress Fantasia Barrino heads to Miami on a tour with Kanye West and Common, and for once she wont 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 Im 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 levelthe minimal requirement. There were about 25 students in her class, Wadsley remembers. Though she doesnt recall Fantasias scores, she says, Students can get Ds and pass onif youre not a behavior problem, which she wasnt, you wont be held back because it shows youre trying to learn. She had some intelligenceshe 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 CDs 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 nowand 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 shes 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 Americas inadequate public school system in the ninth grade.
Fantasia doesnt 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. Ive 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 wouldnt want the world to know that illiteracy is a real thing that affects many young people, like me. Its one of those ugly things that no one wants to talk about. Thats why so many young kids dont have jobsthey cant read a job application. They are not lazy and ghetto, which is what everyone says about us.
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