The Right Answer

The Right Answer

By: Sarah (Schiltz) Muthler 

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, Jan. 13, 2002)

Author’s Note:

The most valuable thing I learned from writing “The Right Answer” is that it takes a long time to establish trust with a source. When I began interviewing Liz, she gave very brief answers to my questions, and I didn’t see how I could get the level of detail I needed. As the weeks passed, Liz opened up more and more about her life. Also, it’s important to choose a subject who is committed to taking the time to tell his or her story.
“The Right Answer” won the university’s Marian Boruck-Brody award for feature writing.

– Sarah Muthler

Liz Bell sits next to Johnnie Dorris in the classroom as they practice adding and reducing fractions on a worksheet. Johnnie is adding 105/16 with 43/16 and 34/16. She has determined the sum is 1712/16 but needs to reduce the fraction.

“What would go into 12 and 16?” Johnnie mumbles to herself. “Four times four is 16, that I can remember. And three times four is 12, I know that.”

Liz jumps in. “So it would be?”

“Four!” Johnnie exclaims and then carefully copies the number onto the page. “I think I’m about to catch on.”

Liz nods, smiles and says, “You’re getting it, sweetie.”

Eight months ago Liz, 45, couldn’’t have done the simple fraction problem, a problem most high school freshmen could whip through, that she is helping Johnnie with today. Liz dropped out of high school when she was in 10th grade. She has gone through life avoiding math and knowing little about science and history despite her interest in those subjects. She has kept her past a secret from people around her. She has been trapped in poorly paying jobs that give her no chance of promotion. After years of feeling inferior to educated people, Liz finally found the support she needed from her new husband and returned to school.

Today, Liz has become a volunteer tutor at the Adult Performance Level program in Urbana, where she finished high school in May. Every weekday from 10 a.m. to noon she helps people like Johnnie learn math, economics and government so that they, too, can graduate. Liz is not just passing on economics skills and test-taking tips; she is passing on the confidence she gained when she conquered these same tests.

“It’s nice that I can be there to help them since I had no one to help me,” Liz says.

The screech of an electric pencil sharpener bounces from the narrow walls that are decorated with everything from a black graduation robe to a sign printed on several taped-together pieces of computer paper that reads “Begin with the end in mind.” The scent of coffee that has been sitting in the pot for hours hangs in the air. “I never made good grades at all,” Liz says. “I never had any help with homework.”

Education was never a priority in Liz’’s life. She grew up in Danville with four brothers and three sisters. Her dad worked on the railroad, and her mom was a cook at a nursing home. Her parents divorced when she was 7, and her father got custody. Liz’’s father remarried, and Liz didn’’t get along with her stepmother.

Liz felt unwanted at home and believed her father only wanted custody of her because his new wife didn’’t want him to have to pay child support. Liz shifts uncomfortably in her chair when talking about her childhood.

Her stepmother used to tell her, “You’’re stupid. You’’re dumb.”

“After a while that stuff gets planted in your head,” Liz says. “The words abuse you.”

When she was 12 years old, she ran away from home and lived secretly in a shed in a friend’’s backyard for three months. The friend, Tammy, gave her blankets, jerry-rigged a table by propping a board on some coffee cans and throw rugs around the table to sit on. Liz insists Tammy’’s parents never knew a runaway was living in their backyard.

In the evening, Tammy would sneak dinner leftovers out to the shed. Liz remembers eating the sandwiches and the fruit, but mostly she remembers the chicken.

“Her mom made absolutely good chicken,” Liz said. She envied Tammy, whose family went on camping trips and spent winter evenings playing games. “You’’d see her dad out playing ball with his son. I always wished they were my parents instead of hers.”

Back in the classroom, it’’s 11 a.m., and Johnnie, who is in her 60s, is packing up her worksheets as she prepares to leave for her job at the Champaign schools’ Family Information Center. Her tiny hands sort through the papers and stack them. Her black, silver-threaded hair falls to her ears in carefully placed ringlets. Her ears support wire-rimmed glasses and earrings made of a cluster of pearls in the shape of a flower.

“I really want to get this,” Johnnie says to Liz.

“And you’’re doing really good,” Liz says.

“At home, I have nobody to help me,” Johnnie says.

“Work on what you know,” Liz says as the two stand from their chairs and hug. “And what you don’’t know, I’’ll help you with.”

Liz hopes to be the kind of teacher she never had in high school: an encouraging one. “There were just too many students in there for one teacher to help all of them,” she says of her high school days. The good students, who usually came from well-off families, sat in the front rows. Liz sat in the back. She didn’’t believe she belonged in the front row with the smart kids.

“I thought they were better than me,” she says.

Although she hated math and didn’’t get good grades, she was interested in most subjects. “I love to read,” she says. “History fascinates me, and science is pretty neat. I like to know how things work.” She rarely had help at home or school, though, and soon got lost.

When her family discovered she was living in her friend’’s backyard, they snatched her away and sent her to live at Cunningham Children’’s Home in Urbana. She finally had adults around who said school was going to be the most important thing in her life. But it was too late. Liz’s voice grows hushed, and she rubs her forehead as she remembers how lonely she was living at the home, where she was required to scrub the floor with a toothbrush, where she couldn’’t see her friends outside of school and where she continued to get bad grades in classes despite a good attendance record.

At 15, she dropped out of school and got a job as a waitress at Howard Johnson’’s. It was the only way she knew to escape. She not only earned paychecks but also lived for free in one of the motel rooms. Over the years, she drifted from Kentucky to California and back to Illinois. She always found jobs, usually as a waitress, once as manager of a 7-Eleven.

“I never really had a chance to know what was out there,” she says. “At that time, that was all I knew how to do. I didn’’t really think I was capable of anything else.” She sometimes thought about going back and finishing high school.

“But I didn’’t think I could ever do it. I didn’’t think I was smart enough to do it.”

At Liz and Johnnie’’s next classroom session, Liz sits at a table at the front of the classroom and Johnnie sits on her left. They are nearly brushing shoulders. Sandra Haney, 41, sits on Liz’’s right. Sandra is small, smaller than most high school freshmen, and has the look of a cheerleader. She doesn’’t speak loudly, but her voice, with its slight southern drawl, carries. With wide eyes, she nods enthusiastically as she listens to Liz. The three women have their backs turned to everyone else in the classroom, and Johnnie and Sandra are absorbed in preparing for their final economics test.

“Take a breath now,” Liz says. “Here’’s the biggies.”

“Those are the ones I really didn’’t get,” Johnnie says.

“Goodness, I know,” Sandra says, explaining that she did badly on the section they are about to review.

“Did you really?” Johnnie says. “I thought I was the only one.”

“Terrible, I did terrible on them,” Sandra says.

Liz intervenes. “You got 78,” she tells Sandra. “You got 74,” she tells Johnnie, and both women smile and sigh.

A decade ago, Liz married Paul, who was a high school graduate and worked in the Operations and Maintenance Department at University of Illinois. She began working in the cafeteria at Parkland College, and everything in her life seemed to have fallen into place except for one nagging complication. “I never told anybody I never completed high school,” she says. “I just never talked about it. I guess I just didn’’t want anybody to know.”

She even avoided telling Paul. “If I would have told him, I thought he might look down on me,” she says. “Maybe he would want someone smart like him.”

After the couple had been married a year, they went to Paul’’s high school reunion, and he asked Liz when her next reunion would be. She explained that she hadn’’t finished high school.

Initially, Paul said little about Liz’’s revelation, but a few years later he suggested that she go back to school so she could get a better job. “When Paul came up with this idea, I was thinking, `Yeah right, go tell somebody that’’s smarter than I am,’ ” she says.

Paul kept reminding her that she would have more opportunities if she finished high school, but she was afraid.

Paul was right, though. Liz was part of the 10 percent of the population that has never finished high school and can find few jobs that pay more than minimum wage. The average annual income for a woman without a high school diploma in 1998 was a little more than $15,000, while the average income for a woman with a diploma was more than $21,000, according to Census data. The jump was even greater for men, who earned about $22,000 without a diploma and $30,000 with one.

Still, Liz didn’’t like the idea of dealing with teachers every day. “They were smarter than I was,” she says. “They graduated and I didn’’t. I tried to avoid people like that. Those people were better than me. I just stayed in my own little world.”

Liz spent a long time debating, and Paul kept prodding her to go back to school. She decided she had nothing to lose. In 1998, she began taking General Educational Development, or GED, classes at Parkland. But she was even more skeptical once she stepped into the classroom. “Look how old I am,” she thought. “What am I doing here?”

The GED is a five-part test that includes writing, math, literature, social studies and science. Students must score a minimum of 40 out of 70 points on each test to pass and must have a combined score of at least 230. Liz faithfully attended the classes but didn’’t do well the first time she took the GED exams. “That was a nightmare,” she says. “That was very, very hard. You got timed. It was like being pushed.” She fell 50 points short of passing the test. She was disappointed, but Paul convinced her to try again.

“You’’ll do better next time,” he kept telling her. So she tried again and missed passing by 30 points. When she tried a third time, she scored a passing combined score, but her math score was still four points too low to pass that section. “It was a big improvement, but I just couldn’’t get there,” she says.

One of Liz’’s teachers at Parkland had watched her struggle and suggested she try the Adult Performance Level program at the Urbana Adult Education Center. Students in the APL program do not take the GED test. Instead, they complete homework assignments and take a series of tests in consumer economics, government and law, health and occupational knowledge. The program is designed to help students learn practical things such as personal finance and child nutrition. Some students spend only a few months completing the requirements, while others take more than a year. Students participate in the Urbana High School graduation and receive their diploma from the school. Liz immediately felt more comfortable in the APL program.

“It was different,” she says. “I wasn’’t getting timed. I wasn’’t getting rushed.”

Liz finished the requirements in only two months, but they were not an easy two months. Every time she wanted to give up, Paul and her teacher, Peggy Buck, would launch a barrage of encouraging words at her: “Don’’t give up. You’’re too close. You can do anything you set your mind to.” Finally, last May, Liz walked across the stage at the Assembly Hall with the APL and Urbana High School classes of 2001. “I felt like an old lady,” she says with a groan and a laugh.

Liz kept going. She began taking a computer class at the education center and now hopes someday to become an assistant teacher in a class for students with disabilities or even go to college and become an elementary school teacher. For now, she volunteers 10 hours every week as a tutor for the APL program. She helps students conquer confusing homework problems and helps them review for their tests. She used to get so nervous taking tests that she would break into hives. Now, she sits with students as they take tests and jokes with them so they relax.

“I got my goal,” she says. “I’’m going to help them all I can to reach their goals.”

Peggy Buck, Liz’’s former teacher, knows that Liz relates to students in a way she never can. “They get the nurturing from someone who has been in their shoes,” Peggy says. “What she gives them is genuine acceptance.”

On a recent morning, Liz walks into the classroom and Peggy motions for her to sit at the table with her and a man who is slightly hunched over in his chair. Bill Treat, 60, is beginning the APL program today. Bill has been unsuccessful in getting his GED but is still determined to finish high school. He has rearranged his work schedule — he runs a gravel construction business with his brothers — so he can come to class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“I want to do something that makes me feel good,” Bill says. “I don’’t care if it takes me a year, a year and a half, I’’m going to stay until I finish.”

Peggy is helping him fill out paperwork. “You’’ll have to visit with Mr. Muirhead,” Peggy tells Bill, referring to the director of the APL program.

Liz leans in and with a low voice and evil chuckle says, “He’’s spooky.”

“Don’’t say that,” Peggy jokes as Bill smiles. “Don’’t do that to him.”

Peggy then asks Liz to take over and help Bill complete a required worksheet. Bill felt he didn’’t get enough help when he tried to finish high school before, but this time is different. He has Liz at his side, and he can see that his age shouldn’’t stop him from succeeding.

Liz gives Bill his first set of instructions: “Just go down here and do whichever ones you know. Then, I’’ll help with the ones you don’’t.”

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