The moment is deeply etched in my brain. I was home for Christmas break one year and I was driving somewhere with my Dad. Several times in the course of our conversation, he kept mentioning a class he was taking. I had never known my father to take a class and I finally asked him if it was something for work. As a maintenance worker for a large hospital, I figured there might be training or safety classes that were be required. He said, “No, it’s not for work. I am going to classes to learn how to read.” He told me he was so proud that I finished college and was going on to grad school and he wanted to make me proud of him. It was like having the wind knocked out of me. That my father who was in his 50s at the time could not read had never crossed my mind. This giant of a man who was so strong and could fix anything had carried this secret for close to 40 years.
My dad was born and raised in a coal mining camp in Bell County, Kentucky. He left school when he was 13 to work for the mining company and help his family. By age 15 he left home and moved to Ohio to find work so that he didn’t have to spend his life digging coal like his father. He never had time to get an education, and because he probably had an undiagnosed learning/visual processing disorder, his skills were well below the 7th grade level he completed.
In hindsight, of course, I can see clues that pointed to my Dad’s inability to read. My parents divorced when I was young so I didn’t live with my Dad which made it more possible to go unnoticed. When I was little and crawled up on his lap with a book and asked him to read, he always said, “Why don’t you read it to me”. I guess I thought he was trying to help me read, and in some ways, he did. And he was always “forgetting his glasses” when we were at a restaurant and asking me to find things on the menu for him.
I can’t imagine how scary it must have been for him. I think he worked twice as hard at his job for fear that he couldn’t find another without being able to read. My mother and his new wife helped him to fill out applications and insurance forms, but they never said a word to me about it. So, after years of embarrassment and shame, my father took the brave step of signing up with an adult literacy program. He spent a couple of years working with a tutor to complete the program. His job was demanding and he sometimes worked 80 hour weeks, but he never gave up on getting his certificate.
When he finally finished, he invited me to attend the dinner and certificate ceremony. He said I was the one that inspired him and he wanted me to be there. I met his tutor who was a wonderful woman. She said my dad may not be the best student in the world, but he was the hardest working one she had ever met.
My dad is not a “sit down and read a novel” kind of guy. He would much rather be outside or fixing something in his garage, but now he can read a menu, signs or assembly instructions (although he usually doesn’t bother). I am so proud that he chose to take the risk.