“It’s like a door opening and the sun shining through”.
According to a recent international survey, one in six Irish adults has problems reading and writing. The National Adult Literacy Agency is an independent charity committed to making sure people with literacy and numeracy difficulties can fully take part in society and have access to learning opportunities that meet their needs.
Maurice Sammon has been a student at the Waterford ETB Adult Education Centre for three years. Here, he tells his story.
“The digs and slaps you get in school are nothing. It’s the laughter that stays with you.”
I left school when I was thirteen. I had a nervous disability which meant I wasn’t able to learn as quickly as everyone else, and back in those days there weren’t many provisions for someone who had learning difficulties.
If I was looking at a word, and there was any sort of pressure on me to read it, I would just go blank.
Unfortunately, the teachers’ favoured method of helping students to “catch up” in those days was to embarrass them. To make you write something on the blackboard in front of everyone. The digs and slaps you get in school are nothing. It’s the laughter that stays with you. The embarrassment of the other kids saying ‘there’s something wrong with that fellow’.
That was my first experience of school. It wasn’t pleasant.
Hiding the truth
I went straight into work without the ability to read or write, and spent the next forty years hiding that fact. I remember one time a girl I was going out with brought me back to meet her parents and they were real family people.
They wanted to play scrabble. I was out of there like a shot. She thought it was extremely strange but what hope did I have? I was good enough to be brought to meet her parents, so I must have impressed her in some way, but she didn’t have a clue of what was really going on.
It takes brains to fool people, and I did that for 40 years.
My ‘big secret’ made me introverted – I didn’t get on with people very well. I couldn’t apply for jobs in case I was asked to sign a form, or to read something. I couldn’t learn a skill like carpentry or block-laying, because there were exams that I wouldn’t be able to take because of my reading and writing.
I hid it because I believed it was a weakness. I always believed that I was less than everyone else.
My way of dealing with it was to hit the bottle. I developed an alcohol addiction. Then about three years ago, I suffered a nervous breakdown. While I was lying in hospital I thought, ‘I have to put all this behind me. I have to make the best of the life I’ve got left.’
Taking the first step
I went down to the Adult Education Centre in Waterford. I was nervous but the Tutor Emma, really put me at ease. The next part was simple.
She asked me what I’d like to learn, and I replied ‘I’d like to be able to read and write with confidence.’
They took it from there, and within twelve months I was reading. It’s such a gift.
Mags is my direct tutor, and I remember one day at the beginning she told me ‘Maurice there’s nothing wrong with your reading. You just need to allow yourself to read.’ That day, it was like a door opened and the sun shone in.
After that it all seemed to fall into place for me. I joined a writer’s group and I even write short stories. The ideas were always up in my head but I could never get them down on paper. I still find spellings tough but I know I will get it. I don’t believe you’re ever too old to learn. You learn every day of your life and I hope I never stop learning.
The one skill I picked up going back to education was confidence. It’s something I never really had. I have a genuine love for learning and I can never express my gratitide. Who knows, if I had this years ago, I may never have hit the bottle.
I try to do something that makes me uncomfortable every day, because that’s how you grow.
If my story can help anyone to make the decision to return to education, then my honesty is worth it.
Find your local adult education centre, walk into the office and ask for help. The people at NALA want to help you, but they’re not mind readers. They won’t come and find you.
You need to make that first step yourself.
For more information, or to find a list of local ETB adult education courses near you, head here.