The Secret Life of a Friend

We have seen many examples of people who have secret lives, sometimes concealing something which is only a problem because of society’s inappropriate reaction to it. Sexual and gender orientation is the most common example. There is another secret which is darker – if revealed, it is often confronted with either intensely painful pity or by rejection.

That secret is adult illiteracy. It is often a deeper secret than sexual orientation, criminal background, and familial abuse.

I have corresponded for a fairly long time with a person I have known for some years. I respect this fellow – whom I will call ‘Joel‘ – and acknowledge his accomplishments in life. He has reared a fine family, contributed to society in an exemplary career, and maintained a productive and active retirement.

How could such a person be illiterate?

How could he have gone through life, enjoying at least as much success as those of us who are ‘educated’, without being able to read above the 3rd-grade level?

How could I, and many, many others, not have realized quickly (if ever!) that Joel is ‘impaired’?

The answers to these questions are an illustration of the immense resources of a strong personality and an active and very intelligent mind. One in five adults in the U.S. is functionally illiterate. They are neither stupid nor lazy.

I have not discussed this with Joel. I would not expect him to welcome such a discussion. He does ‘read’ somewhat, so it is possible for him to find this blog and discover its indirect and rather fearful attempt to provide an introduction to dialogue. It is a dialogue which I want. It is the reason that Hey! Get This . . . exists. I have no feelings of condemnation or pity, and I seek no further exposure of a secret that belongs only to him. I do want to share understanding and respect.

Joel must have, as have many illiterate adults, learned many clever manipulations to conceal and compensate for illiteracy. He was able to retire from a job in management for a government agency. That job had various qualification exams during his career. The exams were typically multiple-choice, designed such that most people taking the exams had studied by key-word association. They did this even if they could read! It seemed easier to them than mastering actual content. My first experience with this practice was when I took the ‘First Class Radiotelephone Operator‘ examination. This exam provided certification for operators of radio and television stations. I was very familiar with the test material, but I also learned how most folks ‘studied’ for it. Joel, able to recognize individual words, would have been unremarkable as he studied with co-workers. A few selected exams were verbal. This offered every opportunity to avoid exposure of Joel’s secret.

As my correspondence with Joel developed, I endured repeated frustrations. It often seemed that he had not read my letters. He never maintained a substantive line of discussion. If I questioned anything or disagreed with him, he never responded by offering an exposition or defense of his comments. He would respond with only a diversion, such as ‘we agree to disagree‘. He was always very attentive to courtesy, and he sometimes received it in return from me. I was not emotionally disposed to be suspicious toward someone whom I like and wish I knew better.

He sometimes made major gaffs in correspondence. Sarcasm (yeah, that would be me doing it) was often completely misunderstood. After one such incident, it struck me that he had responded to my sarcasm exactly as if he were one of the slobs in the Kansas City F.C.C. office, struggling to decide which word was the key, and how to phrase the response.

One thing has changed for me. It is now especially difficult for me to correspond with him. Am I corresponding with him, or with his lovely wife? She has, very likely, assisted him in managing the many accomodations that are necessary to maintain the appearance of literacy. Am I really having a dialogue, or am I engaged in a special pas de deux, choreographed (outside of my observation) to form an artistic interpretation of a dialogue?

I do hope that Joel finds his way to literacy. It is a difficult thing to do. Becoming literate, like any major change in life, threatens relationships, habits, and self-image. Change, even for the better, can be very stressful.


The Shameful Secret of Illiteracy in America

Joplin NALA Read

Adult Education & Literacy Missouri AEL Programs

Demers’ [NHL coach!] secret struggle with pain, shame of illiteracy

The James Brooks [Pro football player] Illiteracy Scandal

Center for the Study of Adult Literacy

An Open Letter about Adult Literacy From the President of ProLiteracy


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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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