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The Lives of Illiterate Men

While educational achievement has improved over the last 30 years, there hasn’t been much change in the number of American adults who are functionally illiterate

For more than 40 years of his life, James Hall couldn’t decipher a restaurant menu by himself unless it had photos. He couldn’t navigate a bus schedule, choosing either to memorize the rhythms of its arrivals, or if he was somewhere unfamiliar, asking another person at the stop. He couldn’t read the details of a bank statement, use a computer to research a recipe or comprehend the front-page of the newspaper in Cleveland, where he grew up.

This had been the case since he first started elementary school. Putting letters into words and words into sentences felt like trying to grab smoke from the air with his fists, despite the fact that Hall didn’t struggle to speak. But he’d gotten used to life in this in-between purgatory, supporting himself just fine through jobs as a janitor or in kitchens — jobs that he could talk his way into, with minimal testing or paperwork. For a long time, he worked to put aside regrets about not learning how to read and write properly, focusing on the things he could do. “You learn to manage it. It’s almost like losing a limb,” he says.

Even as metrics for educational achievement have improved over the last 30 years, there hasn’t been much change in the number of American adults who are functionally illiterate — approximately 32 million, or 14 percent of the country, according to the Department of Education. Those who are functionally illiterate might be able to sound out words or understand basic phrases, but largely struggle to read and write in everyday life. One comprehensive survey of U.S. illiteracy rates between 1993 and 2003 found “no significant change” in reading ability. Additional research in the last decade showed that while some Americans score among the highest in the world in literacy, the U.S. also has a larger-than-average cohort of adults who fail basic reading and writing standards.

As for Hall, he loves to tell the story of the time in sixth grade when the principal and several teachers gathered to, essentially, tell him they were giving up on trying to educate him. To Hall’s surprise, his mother showed up, despite a crippling back injury that made walking a challenge. She crawled up the stairs to the third floor of his Cleveland public school, ignoring the pain, so she could tell her son’s teachers what she thought they must hear. “I had a row of teachers saying, ‘Well, Ms. Hall, we don’t think James will get any further than he has now in school,’” he recalled. “I remember her mustering up the strength to reply, ‘Don’t tell me what my son will or will not do. I know him better than I know all of you sitting here.’”

Hall thought about that story every day after his mother’s death in 2002, after a long struggle with cancer. For him to live and die without knowing how to read and write felt like a betrayal toward her belief in him. Still, he wasn’t sure where to turn. And so, he left town instead, deciding to leave Cleveland behind in 2003 (shortly after he turned 40) and create a life somewhere else. He chose warm and photogenic L.A., but faced a major problem: Finding a job and locking down housing. He still couldn’t read or write well enough to handle a paper application on his own.

Without income or a place to stay, he ended up homeless for a stint in Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row district. That autumn, he meandered into the grand Central Library building and saw a room on the first floor offering lessons for adults struggling with literacy. “I had avoided it, to be honest, for so long. Just a lot of doubt, I guess,” he says of the moment. “But I’d made a promise to my mother to be more sufficient and take care of myself. I kept hearing her belief in me, and I didn’t want to let that go just because it was hard to learn to read and write.”

Within a year, Hall found a job as a janitor at a community college, which didn’t require formal qualifications and rarely involved reading or writing, and found an affordable apartment that he’s lived in for the last 15 years. But committing to literacy tutoring was easier said than done, and a decade passed before he found the right balance and the right tutor, Greg Bristol, whom Hall credits with having a patience and rigor that’s accelerated Hall’s learning.

Hall, who is now 54, and Bristol, 74, are among hundreds of student-tutor pairs in the L.A. Public Library’s adult literacy program, which offers one-on-one and group sessions at branches around the county. About 500 to 700 students are matched with tutoring services each year, according to Managing Librarian Kelly Tyler, with many more visitors referred to other resources or programs. Those who want one-on-one learning must commit to at least six months of meeting twice a week with their tutor. Many pairs stay together for far longer — Hall has been learning with Bristol for more than five years.

Young people fall through the literacy cracks for all sorts of reasons — commonly because they weren’t able to identify and treat a learning disability, but also because of behavioral or emotional struggles that make it difficult for a student to focus in class, or a disruptive home life that prevents them from attending school. Hall was the lone boy among five other sisters, raised by a single mother who needed to work long hours to provide. Not having a father figure left him especially unsettled and unfocused, he says. Hall also struggled to set aside his insecurities about growing up with a learning disability and the embarrassment he felt in school. (“Someone told us I might have a problem, but I never got a diagnosis,” he says.)

But finding ways to address illiteracy must be a bigger societal goal, Tyler says, given that an inability to read and write limits one’s economic potential, disrupts health and financial planning, and can lead to literacy problems with one’s kids, among other issues. “We should care about these problems because it doesn’t just impact the individual, but all of us, and it’s an economic issue as well as a moral one. There are studies that clearly document the taxpayer cost of someone lacking literacy education and struggling over their lifetime,” she adds. “We see that one of the leading indicators of a child’s performance in school is their mother’s literacy level. Access to health care is impacted by literacy. And these effects are all more likely to hurt non-white Americans who already struggle with resources.”

As Reddit user “nonreader” detailed in a Q&A about his illiteracy (with the help of his girlfriend), the inability to read and write led to everything from his paychecks being shorted (by an employer who knew he wouldn’t figure out his pay statement) to a stint in jail for signing a statement of admission to the police when he actually intended to claim innocence. Though he works as a bouncer, he doesn’t have a driver’s license, can’t use a computer, and stores his own cash because he “doesn’t trust the bank.” “I know why I can’t read, because I’m stupid,” he wrote, bluntly.

Still, he adds, “I’ve learned how to work around it. I pay my own way in life, and I have plenty of money. I pay most of my girlfriend’s bills. I get by without reading without too many problems. It’s really not that hard to get through life without reading.”

While people like “nonreader” learn how to cope with illiteracy, it leaves scars on how their lives unfold. Poor reading and writing skills, as well as dropping out of school, have both been linked to a higher probability of committing crimes or going to jail. And those who end up incarcerated are unlikely to find help — 70 percent of prisoners test at the lowest level of literacy, according to research.

That cycle is why Tyler feels urgency to connect as many potential students to literacy programs as possible at the L.A. Public Library. That means offering flexible schedules for those who work lengthy hours, and making sure that the volunteer tutors are adaptive and understanding when it comes to helping new people. “A lot of people struggle with a classroom environment for many different reasons,” she explains. “So they can really benefit from having this one-on-one depth because there’s obviously going to be an aspect of both friendship and mentorship that comes from spending so much time with someone.”

Bristol and Hall have bonded over the flow of their sessions together, despite their differences in age, race — Hall is black, Bristol is white — and background. Bristol readily acknowledges that he grew up “lucky” in a stable middle-class family of devoted readers who put him through good schools, unlike Hall. Yet the latter praises his tutor for his calm, patient manner and ability to read Hall’s emotions, all while breaking big tasks into smaller assignments for him. “He’s never gotten upset about trying to help me learn. Well, actually, he raised his voice once when he knew I was trying to give up,” Hall says with a smile.

“You try to keep going step-by-step, and then each step is hard because you’re tired. He gets tired after an hour and a half of lugging along,” Bristol adds. “And we just keep pushing it. This isn’t a simple thing. It’s like physical therapy when you have somebody who’s got an injury. The physical therapist has to keep working with them and stretching and stretching. That’s painful. Eventually, you get over that.”

“It took me a long time to choose action, but it’s a promise you have to make up here,” Hall says, pointing at his temple. “I’m done with letting things get in the way of what I want to achieve.”

Sometimes then, the small goals mean just as much as the big ones. Hall grew up fascinated with the lives of kings and queens, and visited London for his 50th birthday to see that history in person. That wasn’t long after he began sessions with Bristol, and for the first time in a long time, Hall felt motivated to try to read for pleasure. “Those monarchies were worlds that I used to fantasize about in my head,” he says. “But I admit, going back and reading about them was just so much better.”