Meet the illiterate man who worked as a teacher for 17 years

Meet the illiterate man who worked as a teacher for 17 years

Have you ever lied on your résumé? Most people are guilty of writing a little fib somewhere on their CV at one time. Be honest: was the experience you had as a salesman actually just the lemonade stand you operated as a kid? Are you really that skilled at programming? When you said that you acted as an office manager, did you mean for 15 minutes while your boss was getting lunch? Most of these little exaggerations are harmless. But what if you lied about something so huge that it had the potential to ruin your life? What if you were a teacher, for 17 years, who didn't know how to read?

That might sound stupid, but it was the reality for now-retired educator John Corcoran, who kept his illiteracy confidential for most of his adult life. Incredibly, he managed to blag his way through high school, college, and a long career as a respected teacher. All without being able to finish The Cat in the Hat. Now he's opened up about his extraordinary life, and how he managed to keep an impossible secret.

John Cocoran grew up in New Mexico during the 1940s. He was a late talker, and when he was sent off to school, in a gigantic class filled with many children, learning wasn't too much of a priority. As long as the kids were well behaved and followed instructions, they were left alone, while rowdier and more disruptive children were dealt with accordingly. Each year, the teachers assured John's parents that he was just a late bloomer, that his grades in other classes were acceptable, and that he would soon learn how to read in time. This went on and on until he reached the fifth grade. By then it was too late and John was old enough to feel ashamed of his illiteracy.

John's illiteracy began to have a serious effect on his self-esteem. For a time, he became something of a young delinquent; getting into fights and snapping at teachers, all out of fear that his secret would be revealed. Eventually, his defiance got him expelled, and he was forced to move to a different school. John then realised that being disruptive wasn't helpful and that by focusing on the skills he excelled at (athletics and mathematics) he could pass under the radar. He cheated his way through school exams and played football in order to achieve an athletic scholarship to college. That was where things got tricky.

John was forced to get even more creative when it came to cheating; even breaking into his professor's office in the middle of the night to steal the exam paper. John managed, with the help of friends, to steal the file cabinet it was kept in and employed a locksmith to open it. He then convinced a classmate to make a cheat sheet for him so he could copy out the correct answers.

John was miserable throughout college, and his embarrassment about his reading meant that he was increasingly alienated from his peers, and depressed throughout his course. Incredibly, John managed to graduate from college, and the first job that was available was as a teacher. Acting out of impulsive and desperation, John took the job. He'd exchanged one nightmare for another, only this time he was responsible for the education of others.

John taught a number of different subjects; athletics, social studies, and even typing: John could touch-type without even knowing what he was writing! He relied on star students to help him out during roll calls, and watched movies and held class discussions. He never wrote anything on the blackboard unless it was a picture or diagram. While working as a teacher, John married and kept his secret from his wife for many years. Even when he confessed that he couldn't read, his spouse didn't believe him. It wasn't until his daughter was born and he had to read to her that she realised that he'd been telling the truth.

Eight years after John quit as a teacher, something changed. He saw Barbara Bush give a talk on television all about adult illiteracy. John had thought all through his life that he was unique. But when he learned that his local library was running courses to teach adults how to read and write, he was elated and signed up straight away. His 65-year-old volunteer tutor was the second person that he'd ever told about his illiteracy. With a lot of hard work, she managed to get John to read at a sixth-grade level.

Commenting on his experience, John stated: "It took me about seven years to feel like I was a literate person. I cried, I cried, and I cried after I started learning to read - there was a lot of pain and a lot of frustration - but it filled a big hole in my soul. Adults who can't read are suspended in their childhoods, emotionally, psychologically, academically, spiritually. We haven't grown up yet."

John has since set up his own foundation to help tackle adult illiteracy, which now boasts an online learning centre where anyone can sign up for classes to learn to read. John himself insists that this is a problem that people aren't taking seriously: "We are still pushing children and teens through school without teaching them basic reading and writing skills. But we can break this cycle of failure if instead of blaming teachers we make sure they are properly trained."

It has been estimated that nearly 43 million adults in America are still reading at an elementary level or below: a gigantic section of the population has been sorely let down by the education system. For these people, even finishing this article would seem like an insurmountable task, and so much of their day-to-day life is incredibly stressful. Perhaps you even know someone who is wrestling with the same secret as John. Read between the line and you might spot them.


Featured illustration by Egarcigu