After Decades of Secrecy, One Woman Comes Clean About Being Illiterate


By: Britni Danielle

Published on TakePart

Promoted by Secret Lives of Americans on Pivot

Jun. 3, 2016

Cleo spent more than 40 years slipping through the school system and employing clever tactics to avoid discovery.

America is one of the most advanced nations in the world, but its education system has a startling flaw: Many students, despite graduating from high school, struggle to read. Around 45 million Americans read below fifth-grade level and are considered functionally illiterate, while 32 million people—including 20 percent of high school graduates—cannot read at all. Cleo, a native of Jackson, Alabama, is one of them.

“I slipped through 12 years of school—and however many teachers it was—not knowing how to read,” Cleo, 54, tells TakePart by phone. She details her experience on Pivot’s docuseries Secret Lives of Americans, which follows people as they reveal a secret they’ve been keeping from friends and family. Like many who struggle to read, Cleo (who did not want to share her last name) learned to compensate for her shortcomings to protect herself.

“I learned how to maneuver other ways to live life. But your life, if you don’t know how to read, kind of comes caving in on you,” she says.

Cleo should know. Although she loves driving trucks and has owned multiple trucking companies, she lost all of them because she couldn’t read.

“That happened to me three times,” she says. “I loved that [work] the most, but I lost it every time because I didn’t know how to read and I couldn’t keep up the business part of it.”

Like many functionally illiterate people, Cleo found ingenious ways to cope with her lack of literacy skills. As a child, she relied on her cousin to help her at school until he died when she was 11. At restaurants, she’d ask the server for recommendations. She’d pay her utility bills in person so she could speak with someone instead of having to read her statement. She’d enlist her children to help her fill out paperwork, and when it came to earning a living, Cleo—whose list of skills includes fixing plumbing, laying masonry blocks, and driving trucks—could do just about anything with her hands.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

“Life started getting scarier and scarier,” she says, explaining that while she was able to handle manual jobs that played to her strengths, whenever she tried to advance in her role, the new position would require reading skills.

While Cleo earned a high school diploma and made it through decades with her secret, her compromised reading ability became a source of pain and shame, one she hid from her family.

“Once I started having kids, I got really afraid,” she recalls. Simple things such as filling out forms at the doctor’s office or at her children’s school were impossible tasks. She encouraged her oldest son to take on these duties, and in turn, he taught his younger brother and sister. “He thought I was training him to be a young man,” she says. Really, he was helping Cleo cover up a gap in her education that haunted her.

After hiding the secret for more than four decades, Cleo wanted a better life—and she wanted to learn to read. The first step was to tell her family about her illiteracy. Although she worried for years about coming clean, things turned out better than expected.

“The show helped me tell my kids, and it made me listen to their response,” she says. “Their response made me feel really good because I was ashamed of it before the show.”

These days, Cleo, who was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, takes adult literacy classes and spends hours each day working on her skills.

“It’s been a long journey, but it’s getting better because I’m learning to read,” she says. “I put in a lot of time every week.”

While she’s improving her skills, Cleo is also helping other adults who never mastered reading.

“I’m trying to do something to help the next person because the program was helping me,” she says. “My way of giving back was to try to help anybody that I could help to get into a better situation than I had to go through life with.”

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Comments: This is an account of someone who is illiterate telling their story. This is interesting to literacy at large because only people who can’t read know what it is like to struggle with this and Cleo gives us many insights on how she was able to do things without reading, but also talks about the challenges it brings. The main challenge seemed to be not being able to keep jobs or advance in a workplace because although good at working with her hands, the jobs started to require reading. It also brings up barriers of feeling ashamed and afraid to disclose that she was illiterate. Cleo’s story brings up that even with 12 years in school someone may graduate unable to read. Her story also reveals that in order to learn to read, Cleo has to put in a lot of effort and time to be able to accomplish her goal of reading.