How She Overcame Adult Illiteracy and Changed Her Life

She knew that her struggles with reading and spelling were holding her back. Was it too late to learn?

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- Posted on Oct 24, 2017

A weight lifted from Lisa when she admitted to what she’d been hiding.

Executive secretary. Office manager. Paralegal. Medical records supervisor. Slowly I went through the job listings online, slumping more in my seat with each one. I would’ve been thrilled to land any of these jobs. I dreamed of working in an office, where I could dress up instead of wearing a uniform. Where I could be in a position of responsibility.

But that was never going to happen. Something was holding me back. The same thing that had held me back my whole life.

Reading.

It had been a struggle for me as long as I could remember. I did okay with short, basic sentences. But more than that was beyond me. And spelling? What a nightmare! There were so many words I didn’t feel confident writing without looking up.

Take that word confident. Or was it confidant? I couldn’t rely on spell-check. Not with the number of words I didn’t know. For these office jobs, they wanted people who were fast. Accurate. Smart. Not me.

Best to stick with the kind of work I knew. I typed “cashier” in the search bar, each letter like a nail in the coffin where my dreams were buried. My previous job had been as a nursing assistant at a hospital. I’d liked working in a health-care setting, helping people. But a confrontation with a difficult patient had left me shaken up and I’d resigned, even though my boss urged me to stay. I was 45 and my life was going nowhere!

Other than my husband and kids, no one knew the difficulty I had reading, and even they didn’t know the extent of it. I’d developed all kinds of tactics to hide my problem, like pretending I’d forgotten my glasses and letting someone else decipher a form for me. But the shame and insecurity weighed on me.

I glared at the job listings on my computer. God, can’t you help me learn to read? I don’t want to be stuck like this! It was a familiar prayer, one I’d asked for years.

And one that had never been answered. Did God even care that I couldn’t read? It didn’t seem to matter to anyone when I was growing up, not even my teachers. Naturally, I tried to hide my problem. If a teacher called on me to read aloud, I’d act out to avoid the embarrassment of stumbling over the words.

Every year I was promoted to the next grade. I graduated high school with a 0.33 GPA. It felt as if everyone had given up on me learning to read. My classmates went on to college. I got married. Terry was eight years older than me, a career military man. Doting and protective, he made me feel loved. I didn’t tell Terry I had trouble reading. I didn’t want him thinking less of me.

We’d been married three years when Terry got stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I couldn’t read road signs or newspapers there, but neither could other military wives. We had two sons, Terrance and Neko, and a daughter, Shaleea. I read to them—Dr. Seuss and other children’s books. If I struggled with a word, they didn’t notice. And I wanted them to grow up loving books.

One day I left my grocery list out on the table. Terry walked by and picked it up. “This isn’t how you spell hamburger,” he said, puzzled. “Or spaghetti.”

There was no way to avoid the truth. “I don’t know how to spell a lot of words,” I said. “I’m just not very good at reading. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

I couldn’t meet his eyes, but Terry wasn’t upset. He held me tight and said, “It’s no big deal. There’s a class you can take on the base.”

A program for Japanese wives of American servicemen to learn English. I could only imagine the looks I’d get. What would people think of me, born and raised in America but not knowing how to read English? “I can’t do that,” I said. “I’d be mortified.”

Terry didn’t push me. His next posting was in Germany. We mixed with sophisticated, educated people. I saw how they held themselves, paid close attention to the words they used in conversation. I didn’t want them thinking I was different. But I felt less than. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a failure.

After eight years overseas, we came home to Oklahoma. I needed a job. There was no way I’d get hired to work in an office, like some of the women I’d known in Germany. I found a job as a cashier. Nothing wrong with that. It was just that part of me wanted something more. But with every year that passed, that seemed even farther out of reach.

At my computer, I went to another job website. The kids were grown now, chasing their own dreams. Terry was retired, enjoying life. I was the only one who was trapped in dead-end jobs, the only one who was miserable.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried to get help over the years. I’d gone to GED classes despite having a diploma, but they were geared toward passing a test and I couldn’t read the material. Another course was designed for single mothers, with parenting lessons I didn’t need. At a vocational rehab program, a psychiatrist tested me, chalked my problem up to anxiety and advised me to apply for disability benefits.

I want to work, to learn, I thought. I just don’t know what the answer is.

Almost unconsciously, I typed “learning to read” into Google. An ad popped up—for a place called the Community Literacy Center. It wasn’t a new program, but somehow I’d never heard of it. I went to the website. “Where every adult who wants to read has the opportunity to learn.” For the first time, I felt a flicker of hope.

I told Terry about it. “You should try it,” he said. “But no matter what, I’ll always love you.”

One evening a week later, I drove to the library for the introductory session. I sat in the car, afraid to go in. Was I really ready to let strangers know my secret?

I forced myself to open those library doors and walk inside. I took a seat in a meeting room. There were 10 of us, men and women who seemed almost as nervous as I was.

A tall blonde woman stood at the front of the room. “I’m Ms. Angela,” she said. “I’m happy to see y’all. Tonight we’re not going to do any studying. Just tell me a little about yourself and why you’re here.”

My chest tightened. The only thing scarier than reading was the idea of talking about my struggles. The secret I’d hidden all my life. I wasn’t the first to speak. It turned out that the others, like me, had been too embarrassed to admit they had a problem.

Finally, it was my turn. “I’m Lisa,” I said. “I don’t read so well. And I want to be able to spell better.” As the words tumbled out, the shame that had been weighing me down left me too.

I’d been angry at God, thinking he didn’t care about my struggles. But hadn’t he brought me Terry, who’d encouraged me from the moment I told him my secret? God wanted the best for me. He was just waiting for me to be ready to fully trust my problem to him. Now I was.

Lord, help me to read.

The class met again two days later. On a whiteboard, Ms. Angela wrote phonetic vowel and consonant sounds beside each letter of the alphabet, explaining how different sounds make words. She read them. We repeated. Something clicked.... I could see how it all worked together!

At the next session, we reviewed. Then Ms. Angela handed out worksheets and had us read a paragraph silently. There were a lot of words I couldn’t figure out. I started to panic. In an instant, Ms. Angela was beside me. “Remember the vowel sounds,” she said. “Some words have a short ‘o’ sound like off. Others have a long sound. You’re a smart woman, Lisa. You’ll get it.”

“I’m not smart,” I said. “I wish I was.”

“Lisa, I’ve been teaching 40 years. I know smart when I see it.”

No teacher had ever told me I was smart before. For the first time in my life, I thought, I can do this!

Two evenings a week, I went to class. Ms. Angela made all of us feel capable and valued. In six months, my reading level went from a fifth-grade to a ninth-grade level. I started reading books for fun. One class, I got stuck on a word in my book. I waved for Ms. Angela. She glanced at the cover. “Joyce Meyer,” she said. “One of my favorites. Let me know what you think.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was reading the same author as Ms. Angela! One day I got a call—my old boss at the hospital. “We have an opening, and I thought of you,” he said. “A receptionist for the mental health unit.”

I thought of everything that job would entail. Taking down patient information. Helping with paperwork. Reading charts. Filing. Entering prescription orders. A lot of responsibility. “I’m not sure...” I started to say. Then I thought of how Ms. Angela believed in me. How much Terry loved me. Wasn’t this the kind of job I’d prayed for? “I’ll apply right away,” I said.

I got the job. Terry and Ms. Angela were so proud.

On my first day, I told the woman who was training me that I struggled with reading and was taking a class to improve. I wasn’t ashamed anymore.

“You’ll do fine,” she said. “I’m glad you told me. I’ll help you any way I can.”

I took literacy classes for three years, and I look forward to more advanced reading and writing classes. One thing I know about smart people is, they never stop learning. Someday I hope to go to college.

In the meantime, I have a new job I love: I’m a claims examiner at a health clinic. There are still words that trip me up. Sentences I struggle with. But I’m not afraid to ask for help. I don’t need to have all the answers. I trust the One who does.

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