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Column ‘Constant fear’ – what it’s like not being able to read or write

Chris Potts battled literacy issues until his mid-40s. He told how his life has changed since conquering them.

I LEFT SCHOOL at 13 years of age, and I’m 56 now. When I left school I couldn’t read or write, I had very little education whatsoever. I tried to teach myself over the years, but I just didn’t seem to be able to keep the words in my long term memory. So when it came to writing I found it very difficult.

It was a constant problem in my life. I found it very difficult to get work at times, and there was always this constant fear going for jobs – because a job could mean reading and writing. And then when you did get a job there was always this fear and anxiety that you could be found out. So I went through most of my life hoping and looking for ways to get around things that I had difficulty with.

I grew up believing that I was only one of a few; there was always the embarrassment of being found out, or being looked upon as stupid. It was drummed into us at school that we were stupid, thick, dunces. And that sort of lived with us, being told that in the early days. Before I went back to adult education, I only told one or two people. I kept it away mostly from my family, my friends and so on.

When I started telling people I was amazed to find that a lot of my friends and family had problems too. And they too were keeping it a secret. It’s very widespread. It was estimated a few years ago that nearly 20,000 people in the greater Dun Laoghaire area have problems reading and writing. The figure that the government has is that half a million people in Ireland have difficulty reading and writing. So when you see those sort of figures you say ‘My God, I wasn’t alone.’

‘I was about to quit’

When I went back to adult education ten years ago or more, I could read most things that were put in front of me, but when it came to spelling or writing I found it very difficult. After about a month, I was about to quit. I was finding it too difficult, and I told my tutor that I was going to leave. So we tried a few things, and it basically turned out that I was a visual learner.

So we played around with putting words in 3D form. The tutor brought in some plasticine, and we made up the words, some of the ones I was having difficulty with. And when the word was in 3D form, it was sort of like it was jumping up at me, I could see it sort of forming a picture.

I also used to draw the words on the computer in graphics, making them 3D and different colours. And I found that once the tutor would say the word, I would see it as it was on the screen. The words seemed to be going into my head and staying there.

I became a tutor six years ago, and I now teach literacy. Every now and then I have to pinch myself and say, I became the teacher. And I got the confidence to start writing; I write a lot of poetry now and a few short stories and so on. It’s all new to me, because I’m just constantly writing now. It’s a new world. The fact that I’m talking to you – a few years ago I would never have done that, would never have exposed myself to that.

‘I do things now that I would never have done before’

I do a lot of things now that I would never have done before. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had literacy problems, and one thing that none of us ever did – we never put ourselves in any situation where we could be embarrassed. So we would have shied away from anything like going into a restaurant, ordering a meal. Because of the menu. Or going into a bank and setting up a bank account. These are the things that came new to us later in life, when we got the confidence to do them.

There is a problem out there and it needs to be tackled. A lot of people with literacy problems are still out there, and they’re still hiding it. There are still children leaving school today with literacy problems. Even with one of my own students now – when I first met him, he was in the same situation as I had been. His head was down, he shied away from the fact that he had a problem. Now, five years on, his head is up. His life has changed in front of me. And I see myself in him. It’s amazing how much people change.

It takes an awful lot to lift the phone in the first place, and to go in. And even when a person does go in, it takes a few months for them to settle in. To convince themselves that they’re doing well; that their life is going to change.

Chris Potts is a literacy tutor in Dun Laoghaire, working with the National Adult Literacy Agency. As told to Michael Freeman.

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