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Dave King is learning to read with the help of Literacy Volunteers of Clinton County volunteers Peter Kallas (left) and Hilarie Dickson (right). Photo: Kelli Catana, courtesy of Plattsburgh <em>Press-Republican</em>
Dave King is learning to read with the help of Literacy Volunteers of Clinton County volunteers Peter Kallas (left) and Hilarie Dickson (right). Photo: Kelli Catana, courtesy of Plattsburgh Press-Republican

Escaping a world where words are walls

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By some estimates as many as one in eight American adults has extreme difficulty reading and writing. In parts of the North Country, the situation may even be worse, with one in five people struggling with basic reading skills.

As part of our series on literacy, we wanted to find out what it's like to live in a world where the written word is incomprehensible. It's a world where things as commonplace as a road sign or a restaurant menu can be baffling. It's also a world where a sense of shame and alienation are common.

Brian Mann profiled one man who's been working with Literacy Volunteers of Clinton County for three years, trying to escape that world.

Note: Brian Mann's story was produced in collaboration with WBEZ Chicago's Front & Center project.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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When I meet David King, he’s sitting in a basement classroom still wearing a knit cap and bright orange shirt.  They’re his uniform with the city utility department, where he works here in Plattsburgh.  He looks tough, his face weathered.  Tattooed on the knuckles of one hand are four letters, spelling the word “HATE.”  It’s intimidating until he grins and reaches into a canvas bag.

“This was the first book that I was taught,” he says proudly.  “Little Bear’s Friend.”  David is forty-eight years old.  He’s worked as a farmer, a mechanic, and for the last decade or so as a handyman for the public works department.  He says a couple of years ago, his boss urged him try a literacy course, as a way to better his life and improve his performance at work. 

“I did know my ABCs, but I didn’t know what they meant,” David says.  “There’s five vowels, the rest are all consonants.  I didn’t know that.  I just thought that they were all ABCs.”  When I ask David to read for me, he hands me a copy of his latest primer, a book called The California Gold Rush.  “Josh rushed through the doorway,” David reads.  “Ma, Pa, he yelled.  I have fetched a letter from Uncle Zach.” 

David struggles over some words, but it’s a huge improvement.  He’s lived most of his life with crazy amounts of  written information flashing at him all the time, all of it white noise.  He says he clearly had a learning disability and by the time he was in elementary school in the early 1970s he had already been shunted into special education classes.   “We didn’t kind of like mingle with the others.  We were the retards.  Retards, simple, slow.

The program didn’t help his reading or writing.  The frustration and the stigma made him hate school.  He talks about going to middle school dances, the girls refusing even to talk with him.   “Who wants to dance with us?  You walk down there and it’s, ‘I’m not dancing with him.’  You know?  Who wanted to go out with me?  Who wanted to go out with me?  I tried.”  He shakes his head and says, “If I could read and write, I could make a movie.” 

In high school, David moved to with his family to Peru, in the Champlain Valley.  They put him in mainstream classes and he thought maybe he’d make new friends, get a new start.  That was the first time he tried to hide his illiteracy, but it didn’t work.  “This catches on really quick.  They didn’t know what to do with me,” he says, recalling the moment when his secret was discovered.  “You’re sixteen years old?  You don’t know how to read?”  

David started getting into trouble, fighting a lot, drinking, and skipping school.  Before long, he dropped out.  “There were orchards all over and you got paid by the row,” he says.   David was strong, and found that he liked to work.  But again and again, words were like a wall.  “I couldn’t fill out a [job] application.  My mom or my ex-wife would do it.  I couldn’t fill out an application to save my life.”

The first job where David had to fill out time sheets, he figured out a way to smuggle the forms home so that someone else could write down the information.   He picked up other tricks, like never, ever going to a restaurant that didn’t have pictures on the menus.  “I asked the waitress, I’d say, ‘You see this gravy you got on this hamburger right here? You think I can get that on my French fries?  And I’d say you see these rolls over here?  You think I could get an order of these roles?’  And that’s how I’d get by.” 

So David learned how to cope, but he says he still found himself in situations most of us take for granted – like taking his kids out for ice cream — where basic choices turned into dead ends.  “I’d always have to get strawberry or vanilla [milk shakes].  You’d see somebody with a fancy one, you know what I mean?  I’d say, ‘Hey, what kind is that?’  They’d say, ‘Well, read it, it’s up on the board.’”

David couldn’t get credit cards because he couldn’t read the statements. He went through a divorce and struggled to find people he could trust to read the paperwork.  Even traveling, getting out on the highway, was terrifying.  Road signs were gibberish.  Maps were meaningless.  “ Holy cow.  That is a nightmare.  I went up to Canada and I was going down the wrong street.   Cars were coming at me and everything. And then I got on a subway and I didn’t even know how to get back to my car,” he recalls.

He says other friends and families go on vacations, visiting parts of the US that David would love to see.  But David says he’s always felt safer staying close to home, where he can navigate without having to read.  “Everybody says get on a train that’ll take you right to New York City.  What am I going to do when I get there?  How am I going to get back?  I’m afraid to,” he says.

David still managed to piece together a full life. Since he couldn’t read well enough to borrow money or get a mortgage, he built his own house, from the foundation to the rafters.  He raised five kids in that house and he found the good job he has now with the city.  But David says he never stopped thinking about what it might be like, trying again to learn to read.  “I felt like, like, you know, how can I fix myself.  See these words?  These are the words that I started out with.”

He shows me the flashcards he uses.  He says after a lot of different experiments, he and his tutors worked out that the best way for him to work around his learning disability is with games – flashcards and scrabble and wordseek puzzles.  I ask him to read a few of them for me and he spends the next five minutes carefully sounding out words, sometimes making mistakes, but correcting himself patiently.

These days, David can read a McDonald’s menu – ordering whatever flavor of milkshake he wants.  He can read basic instructions, so that he’s taken on new responsibilities at work.  “At least now when my grandkids come around, I can say, ‘Papa wants to read you Cat in the Hat,’ or you know?  This little book here, this Little Bear book.  I know its sounds funny, it’s a kid’s book.  But I couldn’t read this to my kids.”

David still comes twice a week to work with a volunteer literacy tutor.  Sometimes progress is agonizingly slow, but he’s already made the biggest step.  He is a reader now.  At the end of the session, he walks around the classroom, pointing to words at random, sounding them out, owning them one by one.

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