Can you imagine not being able to read your child a bedtime story? Or being able to read a menu in a restaurant? Or fill out a job application? Did you know there are more than 36 million adults in America who struggle with basic reading, writing, and math skills? Most of us take it for granted that we had the chance to learn these fundamentals. But many people endured challenges that made learning these basic skills impossible, or were pushed through the system without learning the necessary skills to survive in society.
The stories of adult learners are stories of heartbreak, embarrassment, even desperation. In equal measure, you will hear tales of accomplishment, triumph, and inspiration.
Meet Earl Mills. Earl is all too familiar with the shame and embarrassment of being illiterate. At 45 years old, Earl was married with five children, owned his own home, and had worked for 25 years at the same company. Yet he had a secret that few others knew: he could not read.
His inability to read was exposed at church one night when he was asked to read a Bible passage on the spot. The problem was that at age 45, he couldn’t read. No one knew except his wife. Earl says, “When you can’t read, you keep it under a lock and a key and you let hardly anyone inside of that part of your life.”
Earl sought the assistance of the Craven Literacy Council, which assessed him at a second-grade reading level. He had trouble spelling words like “girl” and “bird.” Through sheer determination, he embarked on a three-year process of learning how to read. In addition to improving his literacy skills, Mills developed his ability to capture the frustrations and triumphs through his poetry. Today, he has published several books of poetry, including From Illiterate to Poet and From Illiterate to Author.
Mills said, “Most people think that they don’t know anyone who can’t read, but the person who can’t read is your co-worker, your next door neighbor or the person you just passed on the street. It’s the person sitting beside of you in the church pew.”
Earl is now a passionate advocate for adult literacy. He recently attended the National ProLiteracy Conference on Adult Literacy in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was asked to read a few of his inspiring poems to the audience of 500 adult literacy professionals. ProLiteracy is a national nonprofit whose mission is to help adults learn to read by developing materials, content, and programs for over 1,000 literacy member programs across the country. Joined by powerful advocates like Earl Mills, ProLiteracy’s goal is to create a world where every adult has the right to literacy. When adults learn to read and write, they have the power to change their lives and their communities.
Twenty Six Letters
(A Poem By Earl Mills)
Befuddled by the alphabet, fifty years old and can’t read yet.
Twenty–six letters have brought me such shame;
someone asked me to spell my name.
Another bulletin at work today, who can I ask – what does it say?
Grandpa, will you read this book to me?
I tell her the letters are too small to see.
I don’t have my glasses; I’m running late; I am victim to this lie I hate.
Cannot read – won’t tell a soul;
secret of my youth – now I am old.
Letter after letter I can’t figure out; frustration inside, a silent shout.
Twenty-six letters can raise so much hell;
their riddles to me they will not tell.
This secret stays locked within, but I will not let these letters win.
02.17.16 by Michele Bellso