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The school teacher who couldn't read or write

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John Corcoran grew up in New Mexico in the US during the 1940s and 50s. One of six siblings, he graduated from high school, went on to university, and became a teacher in the 1960s - a job he held for 17 years. But, as he explains here, he hid an extraordinary secret. When I was a child I was told by my parents that I was a winner, and for the first six years of my life I believed what my parents had told me.I was late in talking, but I went off to school with high hopes of learning to read like my sisters, and for the first year things were fine because there weren't many demands on us other than standing in the right line, sitting down, keeping our mouths shut and going to the bathroom on time. And then in the second grade we were supposed to learn to read. But for me it was like opening a Chinese newspaper and looking at it - I didn't understand what those lines were, and as a child of six, seven, eight years old I didn't know how to articulate the problem.I remember praying at night and saying, "Please Lord, let me know how to read tomorrow when I get up" and sometimes I'd even turn on the light and get a book and look at it and see if I got a miracle. But I didn't get that miracle.
At school I ended up in the dumb row with a bunch of other kids who were having a hard time learning to read. I didn't know how I got there, I didn't know how to get out and I certainly didn't know what question to ask.
The teacher didn't call it the "dumb row" - there wasn't any cruelty or anything - but the kids called it the dumb row, and when you're in that dumb row you start thinking you're dumb. At teacher conferences my teacher told my parents, "He's a smart boy, he'll get it," and they moved me on to the third grade. "He's a smart boy, he'll get it," and they moved me on to the fourth grade. "He's a smart boy, he'll get it," and they moved me on to the fifth grade. Outlook Weekend on the BBC World Service
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There was another exam that I couldn't figure out how I was going to pass.One night I went by the professor's office about midnight, he wasn't there. I opened the window with a knife and I went in like a cat burglar. I'd crossed the line now - I wasn't just a student that was cheating, I was a criminal. set up a foundation in his name to help adults and children with literacy skills - in California and online
In the UK the National Literacy Trust website lists organisations that promote adult literacy
These include Read Easy and the Reading Agency
It was uncomfortable for people to hear the story of the teacher who couldn't read. Some people said it was impossible and that I was making the whole story up. But I want people to know there is hope, there is a solution. We are not "dumb", we can learn to read, it's never too late.Unfortunately we are still pushing children and teens through school without teaching them basic reading and writing skills. But we can break this cycle of failure if instead of blaming teachers we make sure they are properly trained. For 48 years I was in the dark. But I finally got the monkey off my back, I finally buried the ghost of my past. Written by Sarah McDermott. Photographs courtesy of John Corcoran.Listen to John Corcoran on Outlook Weekend Join the conversation - find us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
Were you an adult when you learned to read - if so, how did it affect your life[/img]

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