Art Works Blog

Fighting Illiteracy, One Poem at a Time

At 45 years old, Earl Mills was married with five children, owned his own home, and had worked steadily through the years. Yet he had a secret that few others knew: he could not read. This is unfortunately not an unusual circumstance: according to the U.S. Department of Education, 32 million U.S. adults—or 14 percent of the adult population—can’t read. However, Mills was a unique case among these statistics. Even though he could not read a job application or medical prescriptions, he wrote poetry, dictating verses to his wife to write down.

Eventually, Mills contacted the Craven Literacy Council in New Bern, North Carolina, and embarked on a three-year process of learning how to read. Today, he has read over 100 books, published several books of poetry, including From Illiterate to Poet and From Illiterate to Author, and is currently at work on a memoir. A passionate advocate for adult literacy, Mills recently chatted with us by phone about his relationship with the written word.

NEA: Why don’t we start by hearing your story.

EARL MILLS: I am one of 14 children, and my father was also illiterate. When I started school, I noticed somewhere around the third grade that I didn't seem to be getting it like the other kids. My third grade teacher [Mrs. Moore] kept me back. We were in an all-black school at the time, with a potbelly coal stove and outhouses, two grades in each class, yet she noticed the little boy in the back of the class who wasn't learning to read. But being sharecroppers, we moved the next year, and I no longer had Mrs. Moore.

I went on and started building my defense mechanisms, because they don't really teach reading after the fourth or fifth grade, because most people have it. I went into a special ed class in the fourth, fifth grade, and then I went into hiding, building my defense mechanisms, not letting anyone know that I couldn't read. I sat in the back of the class and kept quiet. I was good in math, and things like arithmetic and brick-making. I could figure out how many bricks it would take to build the Empire State Building, or how much concrete. My wife and I would go shopping and the dress was discounted 30 [percent], I could tell you what's it going to cost to the penny at the register, but I couldn't read.

I joined the local church here in New Bern, Dayspring Ministries, and was going through a 14-week discipleship class. I would always pretend that I couldn't find the scripture. But this particular night the pastor was running a little behind schedule and he went around the table and he said, "I want you to get this scripture, you to get this scripture, you to get this scripture." My heart sank. My wife's sitting beside me trying to whisper the words in my ear. I stumbled through it; I was embarrassed. There was a young lady that knew about Craven Literacy Council, a member of the church. I gave them a call and I walked in at 45 years old and was assessed at a second-grade reading level. I had trouble spelling words like "girl" and "bird."

I started with a tutor. We worked for about two-and-a-half years and it didn't seem to be clicking. I had purpose in my heart that this was a good time to quit. But they paired me up with another tutor and he kept calling and calling and calling. And we started again. He would give me spelling words, and if I missed them I had to write them 20 times and all this. But one night, he handed me a book entitled Along the Gold Rush Trail, and he said, "I want you to read this book for our next class." He could tell I was hesitant, so he said, "Try to read half of it." I took the book home that Thursday night in my recliner, when everybody else had gone to bed, and all of that hard work, all of those phonics began to click. I read my first book. I was 48 years old. It was like someone had given me a million dollars. Now that I think about it, if someone offered me a million dollars, but said, "You have to go back to the way that you used to read and would never be able to learn to read again," I would turn it down. You have to know the shame that's associated with an adult that can't read. Can you imagine not being able to write a love note for your significant other, or not being able to read well enough to take your small child to the doctor and they give you a prescription, you can't administer the medicine to your small child? Those are the kind of things that people don't realize.

NEA: In your work as an advocate, what have you found to be the main reason that adults decide to take action and learn how to read?

MILLS: I think it was 2005 when I started attending pro-literacy conferences. I started meeting other adult learners that could not read. What I found is that most of our stories differ a little, but they're mostly the same. Most adults, if they're functioning, and everything is going along, most will not seek help. It has to be something that happens in their life to bring them out.

I had a job, I had my own home. I made not great money but fair money, so I always was employed. Everything was going along smooth. I met a gentleman [at a conference], and he was a carpet layer. He got hurt in a car accident, and could no longer lay carpet. He would go from place to place and try to get a job and say, "Let me take my application home, I'm in a rush," or "I don't have my glasses." That forced him to get out of his comfort zone to go back and get help. This story I heard over and over again, like that embarrassing moment is what made me come forth at the church at the discipleship class.

NEA: You mentioned the defense mechanisms you had built to hide your illiteracy. Can you tell me about them?

MILLS: I personally would not go to some PTA meetings for my children, which was so painful, or any situation or circumstance that I might be called out in public to read. You avoid those situations. I have been working at Hatteras Yachts for 42 years, and I didn't even fill out the application for that job. I brought it home and someone else filled it out for me. But I would walk up to the bulletin board, and if I saw somebody coming by, I'd say, "Well look there, what do you think about this?" and coerce them into telling me what the bulletin board said. You get so good at it. I can spot a person that can't read a mile away. And I try to find a situation or circumstance that I can approach that person, because I know every trick there is. Most people don't think that they know someone that can't read. The person that can't read is your next-door neighbor, the person sitting in the church pew beside you pretending to read, the person that you just passed on the street. Those are the illiterate people.

NEA: What do you think the biggest barrier is between illiterate adults and actually getting up and going somewhere and learning how to read?

MILLS: It's not easy. In my situation, I had a job and transportation. A lot of the time, [people] are struggling because they can't read, they aren't fortunate enough to have a decent job to support themselves. 

And then even that first step. Can you imagine when I walked into Craven Literacy Council, to get the nerve to go, and then letting [someone] into that part of your life that you have kept under lock and key, letting that person know that you have trouble spelling "girl" or "bird." That embarrassment, that shame. You're letting someone into that part of your life that you have never let anyone in before. And it's taking you down to a level of dependence.

NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with writing? 

MILLS: It's a gift. A person that cannot read or write should not be able to write poetry or poems to the extent that I can, so I realize that it's a gift. I would still write if no one had ever read anything that I wrote. It’s like my heartbeat. I do it because I love it. It's part of me, especially poetry. Now this book that I'm writing now is not poetry. It's hard, it's taking longer. In my case, my spelling has kind of lagged behind my reading. With the computer it makes it a lot easier because you get on, spell-check and look the word up, see if you're using it in the right context. I don't find myself having to ask for help as much as I used to.

I was fortunate enough to have a fairly decent vocabulary even when I could not read, and it has gotten better since I've learned to read. Before I learned to read I would have to dumb my language down to something I could spell. And that was hard also, because I had the vocabulary to express myself, but not the spelling or the reading level to facilitate that writing. That was really frustrating and still is to a certain point. 

NEA: Before you learned to read, I know that you were largely dictating what you wanted to write to your wife. How did your writing change once you became more independent through reading?

MILLS: I still depend on her a lot. We've been married for 42 years, and she has never belittled me because of my inability to read. She has always supported me, and she has been a pillar. That's another thin. If you take a person that can't read and he does not have a support system, or someone dogs him or belittles him, that would drive someone in an even deeper shell than they were. But my family, my church family all has always supported me. I think that's the reason we're having this conversation today, because I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that understood, and that had empathy, and helped me. You already feel like you're stupid, you're dumb. You know you should be able to read—you already know that. You don't need the world to tell you that.

NEA: What do you think that we as a society can do to encourage more adults to go seek help if they are not able to read?

MILLS: It's a hard area to reach because you can't read that bulletin, the ads and things. But I would say the voices of the people, the adults that have come forth and now have learned to read—[it would help] if people would tap into that resource. Because once you see someone that's your next-door neighbor, your co-worker, someone that you thought could read—when you see them achieve success, it makes you feel like if they did it, I can do it. It's a serious problem, but it's hard to get to people because they're in hiding. In my job I was fortunate, but in some jobs they're afraid if they come forth they might lose their job. Or they might have a family member that might be holding a position in church, and they're ashamed that if they come forth and let someone know that they can't read, they might lose that or be looked down upon.

NEA: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MILLS: I guess if I had to say something to the illiterate person that might hear this or read this, that the rewards of being able to read outweigh the embarrassment that you might think you're going to face if you come forward. The rewards and the feelings that it will give you outweigh all the negative things that you might have to go through to achieve the ability to read.

"My Name is Illiterate" by Earl Mills

I’m red, yellow, black, and white
From every nation and tongue
Old middle age and young.

I have no boundaries
Generational or race
My father couldn’t read
Now I take his place.

You look for me
In all the wrong places
For I’m closer than you think.

Sitting in the church pew
Pretending to read just like you.

Hidden in plain sight
Woven into the fabric of society
Because of  my one ignorance.

Masquerading as literate
Has become my game
Because of the shame
Of my real name.

Avoiding situation
In fear of hearing this word
READ that which I can not do.

Many try to give me a face
With social status or race.

I’m just ordinary people
That can not read.

Embrassment keeps me
From coming to you
Normally it takes a tragedy
For me to break through.

The thought that illiterate
Imparts in your mine
Disparity needs to be refined.

I’ve tried to paint a picture
On the canvas of your mind
To help you understand
This illiterate life of mine.

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