It’s Never Too Late To Learn

Posted: September 23, 2016 in Education, Inspiration
Tags: ,

Back in the early days of my teaching career I had a student in my Reading class named Ricky that mkjihhhwas constantly getting into trouble. He came from a tough background, but he was really a pretty smart kid. I was always telling him that he was better than he was acting, and he actually cleaned up his act eventually. But Rick is not the focus of this story . . .

Rick’s father was a truck driver named Tom who traveled all over the country, and one day at a local bar he introduced himself to me. This was when his kid was still getting into trouble a couple times a week, and I mentioned this to his dad. We talked about Rick for awhile, and then Tom surprised me with this statement:

“I think he does pretty well, much better than I ever did. Hell, I never even learned to read.”

I sort of chuckled, asked if he was serious, and damned if he wasn’t. Said he couldn’t read much at all. But how was this possible? How did he get through school? Here was a guy who drove an 18-wheeler cross country every week. How did he read maps? Menus? Pass the written part of his driving test? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. In addition, he explained that his son was terribly embarrassed by him, he felt horrible about it, and it just ate him up inside.

Tom told me that when he drove, he’d memorize the letters on a map and then look for them on road signs. He said that when eating, he’d stick to diners or fast-food joints where he could stick to hamburgers or something simple. He said he could write his name and a few other words, but that was about it. Bottom line, he thought Rick was doing pretty well in comparison to him.

But as we talked, it became clear to me that this was a really smart guy who’d somehow fallen through the educational cracks. To be able to make a living, hold down a full-time job, hell, just being able to bluff your way through life without having the ability to read is a pretty amazing feat.

As I sat at the bar listening to Tom’s story, I had a thought. Should I ask? What the hell, I finally just blurted it out:

“Why don’t you let me teach you to read?”

He just kept his head down, and for about 30-seconds he didn’t say a word. Finally, he spoke:

Tom: “How long would it take?”

Me: “Hell, I don’t know. I’ve never taught anybody to read before.”

We both got a good laugh out of that one, but it was true. I’d taught junior high reading for a couple years but it was more of a literature class. Actually teaching kids to read was left to the specialists and primary teachers for the most part. That said, I figured what the hell? How hard could it be?

Me: “Seriously, I have no idea. A couple years to become really good? A year? We’ll just have to start and see what happens.”

Tom: “Two years? Boy, I don’t know. I’ll be almost 40-years old in two years.”

Me: “Well, you’re planning on being 40 anyway, right? Why not be 40 and also be able to read?”

Long story short, he agreed, I talked to a couple literacy people at school for advice, bought some books, set up a schedule, and I began meeting Tom twice a week in my room at school after hours. I remember someone telling me that newspapers were written at a 7th grade level, so that was our goal – 7th grade.

And you know what? Turns out Tom was a quick learner. In a little less than a year he was reading at that 7th grade level, and he achieved it well over a year before reaching 40.

Seriously, it was a pretty amazing how quickly he picked it up. It felt like he went through 10-years of school in 10-months. And he became an avid reader, just soaking information in like a sponge. It was like a blind man seeing for the first time.

The last time we met I brought some of my favorite books for Tom to read – On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Hobbit and a few others. I knew it would be awhile before he’d be able to master them all, so I told him to keep them as long as he wanted. When I loan out books I have people write their thoughts about the book on the inside covers, and I told him to be sure and do so as well. There wasn’t a lot of emotion or anything as we said goodbye, he just said thank you, patted me on the shoulder, took the books and left. We didn’t have to say it – we were both proud of what he’d accomplished.

It was a few years later and I was teaching at another school when I next saw Tom. I was sitting at my desk during my free period, I looked up and there he was, standing in the doorway. He walked over and set the books I’d given him on my desk. We had a nice talk and he thanked me for everything again, said he didn’t know how he could ever repay me. I said it was my pleasure and had probably learned more from the experience than he had. Then we hugged and he left, giving me a wave over his shoulder as he departed.

Then, for some reason, I reached down and picked up the copy of The Hobbit. I opened it and there, on the inside cover, Tom had written this:

“I loved this book. Bilbo never knew he had it in him. But I guess you never really know what you’re capable of until you try, right?”

No, Tom. No you don’t.

The lesson here? Never, ever believe it’s too late to achieve something you really want. I know that’s sort of a worn-out cliché, but damn it, it’s true.

Just ask Tom.

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