When I meet David King, he’s sitting in a basement classroom still wearing a knit cap and bright orange shirt. They’re his uniform with the city utility department, where he works here in Plattsburgh, New York. He looks tough, his face weathered. Tattooed on the knuckles of one hand are four letters. H-A-T-E. It’s intimidating until he grins and reaches into a canvas bag.
“This was the first book that I was taught – Little Bear’s Friend,” King says.
King is 48-years-old. He’s worked as a farmer, a mechanic, and for the last decade or so as a handyman for the public works department. He says a couple of years ago, his boss urged him try a literacy course, as a way to better his life and improve his performance at work.
“I did know my ABCs, but I didn’t know what they meant,” King said. “There’s five vowels, the rest are all consonants. I didn’t know that. I just thought that they were all ABCs."
By some estimates as many as one in eight American adults has extreme difficulty reading and writing. King has lived almost his entire life with crazy amounts of information flashing at him all the time, all of it white noise. He says he clearly had a learning disability. And by the time he was in elementary school in the early 1970s he had already been shunted into special education classes.
“We didn’t kind of like mingle with the others,” he said. “We were the retards.”
The program didn’t help his reading or writing. The frustration and the stigma made him hate school. He remembers going to middle school dances, the girls refusing even to talk with him.
“Who wanted to go out with me?” he said. “I tried. If I could read and write…I could write a movie.”
In high school, David moved to a new town. They put him in mainstream classes and he thought maybe he’d make new friends, get a new start. That was the first time he tried to hide his illiteracy.
“They didn’t know what to do with me,” King laughed. “You’re sixteen years old? You don’t know how to read?”
David started getting into trouble, fighting, drinking, and skipping school. Before long, he dropped out. David was strong, and found that he liked to work. But again and again, words were like a wall.
“I couldn’t fill out an application,” he said. “My mom or my ex-wife would do it. I couldn’t fill out an application to save my life.
The first job where David had to fill out time sheets, he figured out a way to smuggle the forms home so that someone else could write down the information.
He picked up other tricks, like never, ever going to a restaurant that didn’t have pictures on the menus.
“I asked the waitress, I’d say, ‘You see this gravy you got on this hamburger right here? You think I can get that on my French fries,” King said. “And I’d say you see these rolls over here? You think I could get an order of these rolls?’ And that’s how I’d get by.”
So David learned how to cope, but he says he still found himself in situations most of us take for granted – like taking his kids out for ice cream – where basic choices turned into dead ends.
“I’d always have to get strawberry or vanilla,” he said. “You’d see somebody with a fancy one, you know what I mean. I’d say, ‘Hey, what kind is that?’ They’d say, ‘Well, read it, it’s up on the board.’”
He couldn’t get credit cards because he couldn’t read the statements. He went through a divorce and struggled to find people he could trust to read the paperwork. Even traveling, getting out on the highway was terrifying.
“Holy cow. That is a nightmare,” he said. “I went up to Canada and I was going down the wrong street, bud. Cars were coming at me and everything.”
Road signs were gibberish. Maps were meaningless.
“I got on a subway and I didn’t even know how to get back to my car,” King said. “Everybody says get on a train that’ll take you right to New York City. What am I going to do when I get there? How am I going to get back? I’m afraid to.”
David still managed to piece together a full life. Since he couldn’t read well enough to borrow money or get a mortgage, he built his own house, from the foundation to the rafters. He raised five kids in that house and he found the good job he has now with the city. But David says he never stopped thinking about what it might be like, trying again to learn to read.
He says after a lot of different experiments, he and his tutors worked out that the best way for him to work around his learning disability is with games – flashcards and scrabble and word puzzles. These days, King can read a McDonald’s menu – ordering whatever flavor of milkshake he wants. He can read basic instructions, so that he’s taken on new responsibilities at work.
“At least now when my grandkids come around, I can say, ‘Papa wants to read you ‘Cat in the Hat,’” he said. “I know it sounds funny, it’s a kid’s book. But I couldn’t read this to my kids.”
King comes twice a week to work with a volunteer literacy tutor. Sometimes progress is agonizingly slow. But he’s already made the biggest step. He is a reader. At the end of the session, he walks around the classroom, pointing to words at random, sounding them out, owning them one by one.