When Sammy King, 66, learned about Helen Keller, he thought, heck. Look what she went through to learn to read despite her inability to see or hear. He figured if she could do it, so could he, and he’d keep working with his tutor at Literacy Action of Central Arkansas to finally become literate.
If you can’t read and you own your own business — King had a tree-cutting business — you have to have someone send out the bills for you. If you can’t read and you’re at a restaurant, you’ll just have what everyone else is having. If you’re in Vietnam and you ask if someone would please teach you how to read, you might have a drill sergeant tell you forget it, learn to survive instead.
King grew up in England (Lonoke County), the son of a man who could not even sign his name. His mother died when he was young. His father wanted his son to get the education he never had a chance to get, so when King came home from 6th grade one day and announced he wasn’t going back because he wasn’t learning anything, his father gave him “one hell of a whooping.” When the whooping didn’t persuade him to go back to school, his father put him on one end of a crosscut saw, and he went to work cutting trees. He later built irrigation wells.
It was a time when driver’s licenses weren’t laminated, and King, who couldn’t have passed a written driver’s test, managed to drive with a faked one — a friend washed her father’s in hot water with her blue jeans to blur the name and then wrote King’s in. King just kept renewing it.
In 1968, King, 18, got drafted to fight in Vietnam, serving with the 504th Military Police, escorting convoys. He could man a machine gun, but he couldn’t read, and some of his Army brothers treated him differently because of it. It made him ashamed. No one in the Army, including his drill sergeant, was interested in helping him. “I’m not dumb,” King said. But he couldn’t get help. “If I was knocking on a door, I was knocked back.”
King got tuberculosis after a year and a half in Vietnam and was shipped home to a Denver hospital. He went from war to being in medical lockup, and the aftermath wasn’t good. He had PTSD, couldn’t read, couldn’t get help. “I’d get drunk and talk to a tree” about his problems, King said. Nineteen years ago, however, “my life turned around,” thanks to the woman who became his wife. Kathleen King, ironically, works in sales at the Oxford American, a magazine of Southern literature and music.
Kathleen had never met anyone who was illiterate “that I knew of,” she said. “So I was kind of like, wow. … It never crossed my mind that someone living in America [couldn’t read].” She wasn’t put off by it. He had his own business, and what she called “incredible strengths.”
Kathleen trained herself in how to teach someone to read, but she and King, both working, didn’t have the energy to tackle the difficult task in their free time.
Then, a year and a half ago, King — now retired — decided he would go on his own to Literacy Action, which has an office on the fifth floor of the Main Library. “I went into the parking lot three times before I got the guts enough to come in the library,” he said. He decided he would not tell Kathleen for a while, to see if he would stick with it. He started working with volunteer tutor Pratt Remmel, who will begin his fourth year of volunteering this year. “I told him I’ve been laughed at and treated like dirt,” King said. Remmel, who believes that mild dyslexia set King back as a child, told him they would work in stages.
First on the ABCs, then learning how to sound out words. Using a workbook to test comprehension. After seven or eight months, King told him he was getting frustrated and he didn’t know if it was worth it. It wasn’t easy. But he stuck with it.
Together, he and Remmel spend an hour reading and a half hour on the workbook, and they do that twice a week. “He don’t push,” King said of Remmel. “He’ll say, ‘Read that sentence.” If King skips over a word, or makes one up (“he’s caught me at that”), Remmel makes him read it again.
King is now reading at about a sixth-grade level. He’s read the book about Helen Keller. He just finished a book about Jonas Salk. (“Did you know he tested the vaccine on his wife and children?” he asks.) He’s read a book about Audie Murphy. Next up, a book about Buddy Holly.
“I have the confidence I never had all my life,” King said. He compared making his illiteracy public — “I don’t keep it a secret no more,” he said — to “gay people coming out of the closet.” For Kathleen King, “It’s been an honor … to be with someone who has come out of hiding.”
Sammy King has become so comfortable with his reading that he spoke at the Governor’s Mansion at Literacy Action’s “Shine a Light on Literacy” event in August. He told the assembled crowd that for the first time in 19 years, he’d picked out Kathleen’s anniversary card himself, and signed it, “to my loving wife.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, he said.
He said learning to read “took the burden I’ve been carrying all my life,” and he hoped others who can’t read wouldn’t wait as long as he did to get help.
Literacy Action of Central Arkansas serves about 350 students at any given time, Sara Drew, the executive director, said. They include both English-speaking adults and non-English speakers who learn English as a second language at St. Edward Catholic Church downtown and St. Theresa in Southwest Little Rock. There is also a program for Asian immigrants at the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ.
“We rely entirely on volunteers” to tutor, Drew said, and the job is a huge commitment: After tutors are trained, they need to spend one and a half hours twice a week with their students. Most need a break after about six months, she said. Tutors for Spanish-speaking students don’t need to speak Spanish — in fact, Drew said, it is better if they don’t.
Literacy Action, which has only two full-time and two part-time employees, “is financially strapped,” Drew said. The organization needs dollars “to keep the doors open and the staff paid and to keep the program running.”
While it tackles a problem closely tied to the cycle of poverty and unemployment — the primary factor in academic success, Drew said, is whether children have been read to by their parents — people still blame a person for his illiteracy. Illiteracy lacks the sex appeal of, say, needy children.
“When I make a pitch” for contributions, Drew said, “I have to go into great length to describe how many there are that can’t read. … 30,000 roughly in the Central Arkansas area.” Because people “don’t have illiterate stamped on their forehead,” the problem isn’t well recognized. “We are working with people to get jobs, to help children with homework, to [help people] know how to read a prescription label … . They come into us and we do not recruit.”
Learn more about Literacy Action at literacylittlerock.org.