MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a word from me. But first, in our behind closed doors conversation, we try to talk about things that are hard to talk about. Things we often keep hidden. John Corcoran grew up in a middle class family. He went to college, got married, ran a small business, taught school for a time. He's 70 years old now, but for the first five decades of his life he hid the fact that he could not read past the second grade level. And now in his new book, "The Bridge to Literacy: No Child - or Adult - Left Behind," John Corcoran continues the personal story he shared in his memoir and shares his suggestions for combating adult illiteracy. John Corcoran is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. JOHN CORCORAN (Author, " The Bridge to Literacy: No Child - or Adult - Left Behind", John Corcoran Foundation): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: This is actually your second book and your first, "The Teacher Who Couldn't Read." You talked about how it happened. But for people who aren't familiar with your personal story, how is it possible that you were able to get through school without being able to read functionally and function?
Mr. CORCORAN: Yes.
MARTIN: So well?
Mr. CORCORAN: I was a little boy that came from a loving home that where they told me I was a winner. I went to school with high hopes like all little children go to school and expected to learn to read, and when I got to the second grade, I was in the dumb row.
MARTIN: The dumb row.
Mr. CORCORAN: The dumb row.
MARTIN: What does that mean?
Mr. CORCORAN: It was where the little boys and little girls that have - were having trouble learning to read and learning the alphabet.
MARTIN: We associate this phenomenon with kids from poor backgrounds, don't have a lot of adult attention, nobody is really paying attention, underfunded schools, inner city schools, nobody is really paying attention, teachers overwhelmed, preoccupied with discipline, this kind of thing. I mean, forgive me but you're white, you're reasonably well-off. You were, you were - I say- as they say, middle class family, attentive, loving family.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah.
MARTIN: So what happened?
Mr. CORCORAN: You know what? In my particular household, my father had a couple jobs and he had six children to feed. That was an assumption on their part when I was in the second grade, they went to school respectfully and listened to the teacher and their teacher said, Johnny is a smart boy. He knows his time tables, he's polite, he's courteous, he's a little behind in his reading but he'll get it. OK, that's the first and second grade. Now, I'm going in the third and fourth grade, they're not talking about John Corcoran's reading problem anymore. They're talking about his behavioral problem and so it sort of gets lost in that shuffle.
MARTIN: But how did you managed to cover so well? I mean, as I said, you did managed to get through high school. You went to college...
Mr. CORCORAN: Yup.
MARTIN: How did you do it?
Mr. CORCORAN: Let's go back to - when I decided to behave myself and go underground. I had some athletic skills and I have some social skills and if you behave yourself in high school, it was true then, it's true today that you can, you know, fudge a little bit, achieve a little bit, get finished with it. I dated the valedictorian, I had - I was respected- a bright pretty lady. But those are the tools of survival.
MARTIN: How did you get through college though?
Mr. CORCORAN: I went to college on an athletic scholarship. Now, I cheated for every course that I ever took and on one occasion, I passed an exam book out the window to a friend who was waiting. There were four essay questions that I copied off the board, painstakingly copied off the board and by painstakingly, I'm saying, like if I asked you to copy some Japanese or Chinese, you know? You could copy it like in an art form but you would not be able to tell me what it was. It's kind of like the scribe...
MARTIN: I understand.
Mr. CORCORAN: Ancient scribe, you know?
MARTIN: I understand exactly what you're saying.
Mr. CORCORAN: And I know you're not supposed to pray when you're committing a crime and cheating and lying but I was praying that he was going to get it back in my hands and he was going to have the right answer and people say, why would somebody do like that? And I just simply say, he was a shy guy, he belonged to a fraternity, he was a really bright kid and he wanted to go to the spring formal and I fixed him up with a girl by the name of Judy and he helped me pass Dr. Gregory's class.
MARTIN: So you managed to get through college and managed to get through school and how did you become a teacher? You taught social studies.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yes, life's circumstances. There was a shortage of teachers at the time. I was literally offered to teach and...
MARTIN: Weren't you scared?
Mr. CORCORAN: Oh yes, I was scared.
MARTIN: That you were going to get found out?
Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah. I was.
MARTIN: So, you got married.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yes.
MARTIN: Did your wife know?
Mr. CORCORAN: I told my wife when we were engaged. You know marriage is a time to put all your cards on the table, tell the truth and well, that's the way I believed in that, but I did tell her that I couldn't read but see, I was a teacher at the time. She just thought I was talking about not reading much or not liking to read. And you know what? The truth is love is not only blind but it's deaf and it wasn't until I was in the - we were married about three years, four years and I was reading to our child and she realized you know, how severe my inability was to read. I couldn't read, write or spell, I could write a sentence.
MARTIN: How did she react?
Mr. CORCORAN: She just didn't say anything. It's just one of those things that couples just - they're quiet, you know about it and didn't say anything and she did the writing, she did the reading.
MARTIN: She just started covering for you.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah.
MARTIN: She was part of your cover.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah.
MARTIN: So, when did you finally lay this burden down and just learn to read?
Mr. CORCORAN: I was 48 years old. And, I also want to clarify this that there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't want to read. It wasn't a bolt a lightning. When I was about eight years old, I can remember praying, please God when it's my turn to read tomorrow let me - words come out of my mouth, let me read. And I can remember getting out a bed and turning on the light and picking up a book to see if God gave me a zapper miracle.
So, I've been waiting for this miracle and I've been waiting for this second grade teacher that I never had for a long, long time. And at the age of 48, I went to a public library and had a tutor for 13 months, broke the code, got me to about the sixth grade level. And, then I went to a clinic and had some diagnostic test, and I had some intensive instruction, and I went from the second grade nonsense phonetic word attack skills to the twelfth grade level in about 13 months.
MARTIN: But what made you do it? After all those years of covering and going through all that, it sounds exhausting. What made you finally say, OK, enough?
Mr. CORCORAN: I started seeing some commercials on television and they were talking about adults learning to read and I thought, my goodness, you know there's others, there's hundreds of thousands of us, you know. One of the things that you do in isolation, you think you're the only person. And so, I heard the good news, the invitation and I was standing in line in a grocery store one day - two sisters were talking about their older brother going to the library to learn to read. So one Friday afternoon, I just pulled in the library and I talked to the director and cried a little bit.
She got me a tutor, spent the first 30 or 60 days with my tutor. I almost quit, you know all the time, I just - I wasn't getting it. And then, like I said I got to about the sixth grade level, thought I'd died and went to heaven. And they asked me at that time if I would speak publicly, share the shameful, embarrassing story. I said, look this is a confidential program. I'm not talking to anybody about it.
MARTIN: You were like, oh heck no.
Mr. CORCORAN: And then I go home and I said, you know, to my wife, you know, they want me to speak publicly. She says, why don't you just shut up and read? You know, we've lived in the same town for a long time, and I really, truly did not want to embarrass the university that I graduated from. I didn't want to embarrass the school that I taught at. I certainly didn't want to embarrass my family, but here I am. And I'll now share my secret with anybody who'll listen.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with John Corcoran. He's author of "The Bridge to Literacy." We're talking about his personal struggle with illiteracy and his solutions for fixing this problem. And we want to ask you, is illiteracy a challenge that you or a loved one faces? Is it a secret that you've been hiding, something you've overcome? Tell us your story by visiting our blog at npr.org/tellmemore, or you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522.
OK. Your first book, "The Teacher who Couldn't Read" you wanted to tell your story, but you decided to write another one because you wanted to really hone in on what it is that America needs to do differently so that there aren't any more John Corcorans. So to start, what do you think the issue is though, is the issue that we really don't care if every kid learns to read? We say we do but we really don't?
Mr. CORCORAN: No. You know what? I don't think that's the issue. I think a lot of the old belief system is that we got the blame. When I say it's a form of a child neglect, we got the blame, we got labeled learning disabled. Learning disability is a label that has made excuses for the literal world not to teach us to read. So, we've sort of perpetuated this by those myths. So we really have to change that belief system.
MARTIN: But you're not challenging the fact that there are some specific challenges that some kids face either cognitively or whatever that require different skills.
Mr. CORCORAN: I had a diagnostic test. I had a severe auditory discrimination problem, but with this diagnostic test I was able to get the treatment for it, the intensive treatment and...
MARTIN: So, you had trouble distinguishing sounds?
Mr. CORCORAN: Yes, absolutely. And a sound like M and N sounded the same to me.
MARTIN: But, what I'm wondering is that, the kinds of sort of diagnostic tools that you're talking about are a lot more common now than they were when you are growing up. And No Child Left Behind, which is - you give a nod to in the title of your latest book, that the whole purpose of No Child Left Behind was to not allow the schools to hide the underperformance of some kids behind the high achieving kids.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yep.
MARTIN: But what I'm wondering is that - and I credit the fact that you've talked to - you've been traveling the country for years now.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yes.
MARTIN: You've made this a cause and spent a lot of time on it. And I credit the fact that you talked to, you know, thousands of people over the course of the year about these issues. But, the kinds of sort of diagnostic tools that you're talking about are a lot more common now that they were when you are growing up. And I also...
Mr. CORCORAN: That's why I'm so hopeful.
MARTIN: I think that parents aren't as deferential toward teachers as they were when you were growing up. So, I'm just wondering whether, is it possible that we've already kind of improved some of this issue already since when you were growing up? And then you add to the fact that schools are held more accountable than they used to be by various means.
Mr. CORCORAN: That's wishful thinking. The law, the legislation, No Child Left Behind, it didn't have any effect. That argument didn't have anything to do with the fact that we can't read.
MARTIN: You know what's interesting to me, like Mrs. Bush - first lady Barbara Bush made literacy her issue.
Mr. CORCORAN: Yes.
MARTIN: And it just seems to me that like every couple of years we focus on the issue.You don't think we're making any headway at all?
Mr. CORCORAN: No.
MARTIN: You know education's come up quite a bit in the presidential race. Senator Barack Obama has talked about wanting to replicate some successful models, particularly those that focus on early childhood education. Senator John McCain said in his acceptance speech for the nomination that education is a civil rights issue of the 21st century. Does either of them resonate with you? Does either of them have a message on education that resonates with you?
Mr. CORCORAN: John McCain talks about plain talk or straight talk. This is John Corcoran straight talk, this is what I want both the candidates to say. Be more specific. The reality is literacy and education is not synonymous. If you want to make an assumption because you have a high school diploma that this person is literate, no don't make that assumption. And so, what I'm doing and what I'd like to see is to use plain, straight language and focus on the cornerstone. And another thing I would say is that when I was interviewed by Oprah, she asked me if...
MARTIN: Now, you're showing off.
Mr. CORCORAN: Oh, yeah. Name dropping, name dropping.
MARTIN: Now you're showing off...
Mr. CORCORAN: Hey, I'm going back home and I'm going to say Michel Martin interviewed me. So...
MARTIN: OK. OK. OK.
Mr. CORCORAN: You know, there's nothing wrong with that, right?
Mr. CORCORAN: But one of the things she asked me was if this truth has really helped me? And I say, well you know, learning to read has filled a big hole in my soul. And I think when America teaches all its people and gives everybody equal opportunity it's going to fill up big hole in America's soul.
MARTIN: John Corcoran's latest book is "The Bridge to Literacy." He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. John Corcoran, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CORCORAN: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.