The Summer I Learned to Read

Friends,

Today, January 23rd,  is National Reading Day.  Reading is something many of us take for granted, but after hearing my wife share about her own experience of learning to read English, I asked permission to share her story on my blog.  I hope you find it encouraging as well.

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The Summer I Learned to Read

by Patrice McElhannon

The defeated look upon the man’s face said it all.  It was an all-too-familiar look of desperation on the face of clients seeking help with their disability cases.  His faint smile masked a fear within.  In his case, there were hidden burdens still unspoken.

As a paralegal working for a Social Security Disability lawyer, it was my job to interview these clients, get the facts, and make them feel welcome and at ease. I had learned how to read faces fairly well.  And this man was a long way from being at ease.

The more we talked, the deeper we delved into the list of his disabling conditions.  I sensed the wall between us crumble.  Finally, with trepidation and shame, he revealed his lifelong burden.  As if he were confessing a crime for the first time, he looked down, sad and embarrassed, and admitted, “I cannot read.”

I smiled back tearfully and assured him, “I understand.”

Seeing the dubious look upon his face, I knew I needed to address his skeptical gaze.  “Let me tell you about the summer I learned to read.”

And so I shared with him the following.

“My father worked for the airlines and his job took us all over the world. My mom homeschooled me as we traveled.  I spent my early youth in Europe.  By the age of ten I could speak French, German, and Italian, and I could read a little in each of those languages.  As a singer in a children’s church choir, I had also learned to read Latin. When I reached the age of ten, my family moved back to the States, and we settled in California.

It was there I attended my first school.

My mother had her difficulties, and one of them was as a “homeschool” teacher.  As a result, my math skills were limited, but more importantly, my reading skills, at least in English, were nearly nonexistent — quite illiterate, in fact.  Attending school for the first time as a ten-year-old, my California teachers were impressed with my pronunciation skills.  I spoke English beautifully, even using the correct verbs, proper tense, and pronouns.  But, it wasn’t long before my teachers realized something was amiss.  What was missing was my ability to read English.

A classmate took pity on me and began to tutor me.  It was an uphill battle.  When the school year ended, my teachers gave my parents strict instructions to get my reading skills up to speed immediately.

So, my summer as a ten-year-old was not spent on playgrounds, riding a bike, or jumping rope.  I didn’t watch television or play with Barbie dolls.  I spent that summer by my mother’s side reading — out loud — book after book after book.  My mother insisted I read books that challenged me.  Most of them I did not understand.  The Call of the Wild by Jack London was quite over my head.  My mother even had me read my father’s medical journals, insisting I learn how to correctly pronounce multi-syllable medical terms.  It was a summer of endlessly, tiring, complex English vocabulary.

I know the embarrassment of not being able to read.  I know the shame, I know the frustration, I know the pain it can cause, and the way it makes you feel disconnected from society.”

As my story unfolded, the client relaxed. Sensing we shared a common ground, there was a relational understanding.  As we continued to work on his legal case, he timidly asked me if I would help him with his monthly bills, as he couldn’t read the billing statements, nor write his own checks.  Each month thereafter, he would drop by my office around lunchtime.  I took my lunch break and helped him balance his checkbook, read his bills, and write out his checks.  I eventually talked him into taking an adult reading class at our local library. 

The summer I learned to read was a painful time and yet a learning experience that taught me more than just how to read. Maybe the greatest lesson was to have empathy for those who struggle as adults with illiteracy and learning disabilities.  

It’s funny how my own experience of illiteracy grew into an opportunity to serve others with  similar challenges — and in a most unexpected place — a law office.

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Thanks to Patrice for her willingness to share that story.  Let’s all take a moment and give thanks to the teachers among us who help us to read, speak, and communicate.  Just as importantly, let’s be supportive and encouraging to those among us who struggle – for whatever reason – with reading.

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