A Student's Story

by Howard Tompkins

Not knowing how to read can be like a life sentence locked out of the world of reading. This can cause a life of pain that most people do not know. It is something we learn to hide. I have been doing that for 53 years.

When I was in school, I struggled every day with reading. Back then teachers did not know what to do with a child who could not read. We were set to the side and forgotten. They could not interrupt the class for a boy with reading problems. The best they could do was send me to a Special Ed class.

I have never had any special reading classes all throughout school. Every year I started out in a regular class. When they found out I could not read, they would put me in Special Ed. When I would go out for recess, the other kids would call me retard. This was my nickname all throughout school. It was a hard thing for a little boy to deal with every day. The constant picking was more than I could handle. There were days I would go home crying, not wanting to go back to school.

Give a kid a test in school that has a lot of reading in it, and it becomes a threat and is scary. I know because I have been there. And I would always fail the test. If you make a kid read out loud in class and he can’t read and the class and the teacher are waiting for him to read, it is like having a gun to your head. I know, because I have been there.

It was so hard for me to get up and go to school. Some days the jokes were more than I could take. There were days I wanted to just end my life. I would get off the bus and run down the hill to the creek and set on the rock in the middle of the creek and cry my eyes out. Sometimes my best friend Skipper would join me. He would jump in and climb up on the rock and shake off the water and soak me good. After a good soaking, I’d forget about my reading problem. Skipper always seemed to know when I needed a friend. He didn’t judge me or make fun of me.

When I was in seventh grade, it was real hard for me. Every class I had, I fought with my reading. The teachers did not know why I didn’t do my work. It seemed to get worse every day I went to school. I still had my nickname ‘retard’ the next year in eighth grade. In history class I sat there looking at a book I could not read. The paper I would hand in at the end of the day would only have my name on it. This would upset the teacher. One day she asked me to come up in front of the class and tell the class why I refused to do my work. I told the class, “I can’t read the book. I just can’t read.” The kids laughed and laughed at me. I turned to the teacher and asked, “Is this what you wanted to hear.” She sat there silent, not saying a word. Then I said, “I can’t do this anymore; I am done with school.” I left the class and walked home, about a 5-mile walk. I cried and cried all the way home. I hurt so bad. I cried till I thought of the trouble I was going to get from my dad when I got home because I walked out of school that day. But mom said, “Dad won’t be mad at you; he can’t read either. He knows what you’re going through.” Dad never said a word to me about quitting school that day.

After that I got a job working on Homer’s farm. I made one dollar an hour working 15 hours, seven days a week. I worked for Homer for three years, until he passed away. By that time I was 18 years old and still couldn’t read.

I went looking for a new job. Hard to do when you cannot read. I tried to fill out an application. Had a friend help me. What would I do without friends?

I got a job in a factory working on the line. Then they gave me a job in shipping and receiving. I loaded the truck wrong because I couldn’t read what went on first. Then I worked cleaning the floors and restrooms. But I got in trouble again because I couldn’t read the label and used the wrong cleaners. Then they moved me to the Maintenance Department. My job was laying on the floor cleaning grease off machines. It was a crap job, but I did it every day. I went home every day stressed out not knowing what to do about my reading. Then I heard the plant was closing. I had to go looking for a job again. I called a friend and asked for help again to fill out an application. I lost a lot of pride every time I had to ask for help.

After that I found a job that I could do. I started building decks on houses and doing roofs and remodeling old farm houses. I would do anything I could to make a dime to pay the bills and put food on the table.

I like to hunt and fish. But I can’t read the rule book. I guess I am lucky I haven’t gotten a ticket yet. Years ago, I wanted to be a DNR officer. I thought – why not? How far can I get? So I signed up for it with a friend’s help. The next thing I knew I was in the door at Michigan State. I did real good for the first month; I knew a lot about animals and the outdoors. Then they gave me a book to read and answer the questions. That was the last day of my dream. If I could read the book, I would be a DNR officer today. I tried. I knew it was a long shot. You don’t know unless you try.

I tried many times to find someone who could help me with my reading. I enrolled in Adult Ed and started with a reading class. There were many people in class. I was the slow one. The teacher did not know what to do with me so they put me in a carpentry class to give me enough credits to graduate. I told them I did not care to graduate, I just wanted to learn to read. They didn’t seem to know what that meant to me. After two years, the school told me I had enough credits to graduate. The next day they came to fit me with the cap and gown. I said, “No way, not until I can read.” They pushed me out the door and sent me my diploma in the mail. That was the last of my schooling. I gave up on reading then. I was not going to get any better. So I just went on with my life, just went to work and home.

Over the years, not being able to read has stopped me from living a good life. I have lost out on a lot of good jobs and much more. When I get gas in my car, I go to the same place. It’s hard to read the gas pumps. When I go out of town I take a friend or I just don’t go. I had to go out of town for training for two weeks. The shop dropped me off at the airport. When I got inside, I didn’t know where to go. I found a man that worked there and asked him “What does this ticket say? I just can’t see it.” The man showed me where to go. If I said I can’t see, people would help me. This worked in some cases. It was a lie, but it was a way out.

There hasn’t been a day in my life that I haven’t struggled with reading. I had to wait until I was 18 to get my driver’s license. They had to read the test to me in front of a lot of people. It made me feel an inch high. I passed it; it was easy. When I got my insurance, they gave me a lot of papers to read. Had no idea what is said. I am 53 now, and still don’t know what it said. Went to the doctor. I had a lot of papers to fill out. Can’t read that. I get mail – can’t read so it goes in the trash. I get letters at work – they go in the trash. I don’t read much in the newspapers. Don’t go out to eat, can’t read the menu.

Life without reading is quite a handicap. When I go to the store, can’t read the labels, so I look at the picture if there is one. Sick and going to the pharmacy? Not good when you can’t read. Take the wrong medicine and it might kill you. Go out to eat and take a girl? Not me – tell her you can’t read and she would be gone in a minute. Try to use the computer at work – not good. You need to know how to read to use a computer.

Everything I do has something to do with reading. I’ve been trying to read all my life. I always have. Just because I can’t read very well doesn’t mean that I don’t try. I am better now than I have been in the past, but not good enough.

Sometimes I wonder why God is punishing me. I ask him, “Why did you take the gift of reading.” But I guess He has plans for me. He has given me other gifts. He has given me a good son who can read very well. He gave me power in my hands to build. God has given me smarts to build my house and build things at the shop. I have built conveyors, case packers, tools, and much more. It comes easy for me to build. People at the shop ask, “How can you build the things you do when you can’t read?” I always say to them, “Not bad for a retard (Ha); not smart enough to read, but I can build a machine to run production just by what I see in my head.

I think I have done well at Cargill Kitchen Solutions for a man who can’t read. I have a good job in maintenance there. Cargill has rewarded me for doing a good job. I have been Safety Employee of the Year and Quality Achiever of the Year. And Cargill has given me two Eagle Awards, the highest award Cargill gives to their employees, and they’ve given me a $1500 travel gift certificate. The gift I did not use. Not knowing how to read stops me from going a lot of places. My son also works at Cargill and helps me with my reading. And most of the maintenance guys are glad to help me too. Troy Pepper, plant manager at Cargill, found a tutor at the Ionia County Literacy Council to help me.

I’m getting better, I am now progressing to the third grade level. I can go to Subway now and order from the menu if I take my time. It’s not easy, but I can do it. This probably doesn’t sound like much to you, but it means a lot to me.

So I keep trying, trying to get my freedom. This time I might make it. This time I have help – a person that cares and wants to help people who struggle with reading problems. I thank the Literacy Council and all the people who stand behind me in this fight. I am not giving up. I want to beat this. Maybe I will beat it before I die of old age, if I am lucky.

I write this story to the people who can read. Please HELP us. If you can find one person and give them a life of reading, you could not give them a better gift. You are never too old to learn to read.


Ionia County Literacy Council

301 West Main Street

Ionia, MI 48846

616-389-8529