This former high school teacher didn’t learn how to read until he was 48.
And now that he has learned to read, he’s on a campaign for literacy.
John Corcoran spoke during a luncheon Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church in Smithfield. He was visiting from California to tell people his story and stress the importance of adult literacy education.
Corcoran graduated from high school, then college. He taught high school for 17 years and later became a successful real estate agent. But he was “functionally illiterate,” unable to read road signs and books or research what it meant when his wife told him about a medical condition.
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“When do you tell this shame-based secret to someone?” he said.
Corcoran got through high school by avoiding reading: He had a good memory, understood math well and occasionally cheated. An athletic scholarship got him into college, where he constantly cheated to graduate from the University of Texas at El Paso with degrees in education and business administration.
His wife would later read and write for him when he couldn’t avoid it, until finally one day he sought help from an adult literacy center.
“This secret that I guarded, and it was embarrassing, and it’s really a shame-based secret that the adults carry,” he said. “We carry the shame, and we get the blame. And it’s not until I learned to read that I was able to deal with some of those emotional issues that I stuffed away for a long time. The anger and the frustration, the disappointment, the feeling of failure, the feeling of being a loser.”
Corcoran said his brain has trouble processing language, so in school, the teachers at first passed him on. But after he got by in elementary school and still couldn’t read, he didn’t know what to do. He would act out and flip his desk if the teacher was going to call on him; better that than the embarrassment of not being able to answer a question.
Corcoran constantly found ways to cope. As a teacher, he would tell his students to say their names out loud instead of taking roll, and he would have his students teach parts of the class.
Corcoran said people tend to think students learn reading throughout school, but in reality, students are taught to read only in elementary school. “The rest of our education, we read to learn,” he said. “And if you don’t read by about the third or fourth grade, you cannot succeed no matter how smart or clever you are, because ... the dominant language is the written language.”
The New Hope Presbytery Literacy Task Force brought Corcoran to North Carolina. First Presbyterian in Smithfield is part of the larger New Hope Presbytery, which serves the state.
In Johnston County, the only adult literacy center is at Johnston Community College. First Presbyterian doesn’t have plans to start its own literacy education program, but the church is open to helping others start one, said the Rev. Joe Hester, pastor.
Katie Jefferson Waters, a member of the New Hope literacy task force, said she hopes Corcoran’s story can personalize adult illiteracy. Usually people just hear numbers and don’t understand how someone could become an adult and not know how to read.
Corcoran learned to read through an adult education program that succeeded where teachers years before had failed. Afterward, instructors in the program asked him to tell his unique story. That eventually turned into appearances on Oprah and writing his own books. He is now a national advocate.
Not knowing how to read was like having a hole in his soul that has finally been filled, Corcoran said. “My sins and my crimes and my trespasses, I asked the literate society to forgive me of them, and I’ve finally forgiven myself of them, but what it took was me learning to read,” he said.
Teaching a child, teen or adult to read is an act of love, Corcoran said.
Carol Pierson, an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Goldsboro, introduced Corcoran. In Wayne County, about one in four adults reads at or below a fifth grade level, she said. Her church became involved in literacy when it realized how much it affects economic inequality.
“We are here today because we care about improving the quality of life in North Carolina,” she said.