John Corcoran -- The Man Who Couldn't Read

John Corcoran -- The Man Who Couldn't Read

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

John Corcoran — The Man Who Couldn’t Read

To the uneducated an A is just three sticks.

~A.A. Milne

For as long as John Corcoran could remember, words had mocked him. The letters in sentences traded places, vowel sounds lost themselves in the tunnels of his ears. In school he’d sit at his desk, stupid and silent as a stone, knowing he would be different from everyone else forever. If only someone had sat next to that little boy, put an arm around his shoulder and said, “I’ll help you. Don’t be scared.”

But no one had heard of dyslexia then. And John couldn’t tell them that the left side of his brain, the lobe humans use to arrange symbols logically in a sequence, had always misfired.

Instead, in second grade they put him in the “dumb” row. In third grade a nun handed a yardstick to the other children when John refused to read or write and let each student have a crack at his legs. In fourth grade his teacher called on him to read and let one minute of quiet pile upon another until the child thought he would suffocate. Then he was passed on to the next grade and the next. John Corcoran never failed a year in his life.

In his senior year, John was voted homecoming king, went steady with the valedictorian and starred on the basketball team. His mom kissed him when he graduated — and kept talking about college. College? It would be insane to consider. But he finally decided on the University of Texas at El Paso where he could try out for the basketball team. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes ... and recrossed enemy lines.

On campus John asked each new friend: Which teachers gave essay tests? Which gave multiple choice? The minute he stepped out of a class, he tore the pages of scribble from his notebook, in case anyone asked to see his notes. He stared at thick textbooks in the evening so his roommate wouldn’t doubt. And he lay in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, unable to make his whirring mind let go. John promised he’d go to Mass 30 days straight at the crack of dawn, if only God would let him get his degree.

He got the diploma. He gave God his 30 days of Mass. Now what? Maybe he was addicted to the edge. Maybe the thing he felt most insecure about — his mind — was what he needed most to have admired. Maybe that’s why, in 1961, John became a teacher.

John taught in California. Each day he had a student read the textbook to the class. He gave standardized tests that he could grade by placing a form with holes over each correct answer and he lay in bed for hours on weekend mornings, depressed.

Then he met Kathy, an A student and a nurse. Not a leaf, like John. A rock. “There’s something I have to tell you, Kathy,” he said one night in 1965 before their marriage, “I... I can’t read.”

“He’s a teacher,” she thought. He must mean he can’t read well. Kathy didn’t understand until years later when she saw John unable to read a children’s book to their 18-month-old daughter. Kathy filled out his forms, read and wrote his letters. Why didn’t he simply ask her to teach him to read and write? He couldn’t believe that anyone could teach him.

At age 28 John borrowed $2,500, bought a second house, fixed it up and rented it. He bought and rented another. And another. His business got bigger and bigger until he needed a secretary, a lawyer and a partner.

Then one day his accountant told him he was a millionaire. Perfect. Who’d notice that a millionaire always pulled on the doors that said PUSH or paused before entering public bathrooms, waiting to see which one the men walked out of?

In 1982 the bottom began to fall out. His properties started to sit empty and investors pulled out. Threats of foreclosures and lawsuits tumbled out of envelopes. Every waking moment, it seemed, he was pleading with bankers to extend his loans, coaxing builders to stay on the job, trying to make sense of the pyramid of paper. Soon he knew they’d have him on the witness stand and the man in black robes would say: “The truth, John Corcoran. Can’t you even read?”

Finally in the fall of 1986, at age 48, John did two things he swore he never would. He put up his house as collateral to obtain one last construction loan. And he walked into the Carlsbad City Library and told the woman in charge of the tutoring program, “I can’t read.”

Then he cried.

He was placed with a 65-year-old grandmother named Eleanor Condit. Painstakingly — letter by letter, phonetically — she began teaching him. Within 14 months, his land-development company began to revive. And John Corcoran was learning to read.

The next step was confession: a speech before 200 stunned businessmen in San Diego. To heal, he had to come clean. He was placed on the board of directors of the San Diego Council on Literacy and began traveling across the country to give speeches.

“Illiteracy is a form of slavery!” he would cry. “We can’t waste time blaming anyone. We need to become obsessed with teaching people to read!”

He read every book or magazine he could get his hands on, every road sign he passed, out loud, as long as Kathy could bear it. It was glorious, like singing. And now he could sleep.

Then one day it occurred to him — one more thing he could finally do. Yes, that dusty box in his office, that sheaf of papers bound by ribbon... a quarter-century later, John Corcoran could read his wife's love letters.

~Gary Smith

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