Archie Willard is an adult learner from Iowa who learned to read when he was in his fifties. He has been a state and national leader of adult learners, and he was a founder of VALUEUSA, the national adult learner leadership organization. He has also played an important role in health literacy. I met Archie in 1995 when we were among those chosen as U.S. National Institute for Literacy Research Fellows. Archie’s research was on adult learner leadership. I invited Archie to write a guest blog about his experiences over the years as an adult learner leader who speaks to classes of children. Note: If you would like permission to re-publish this story, please email me at djrosen&comcast.net (Substitute @ for & in the email address.)
Reaching out to Learning Disability Children
Archie Willard, Adult Learner
I have come full circle in the literacy field, from a small boy trying to read in first grade to a retired Senior. Before I started school I looked forward to doing something with my life. After trying and failing at learning to read, I lost hope. I shut down inside and I didn’t want my classmates to see me fail any more so I gave up on myself. Later in my school life I tried again. I barely got through high school and two years of college. I left school without any dreams to take me into life. I went to work in a meat packing plant. I didn’t need to know how to read there; I just needed to work fast with my hands. When you are dyslexic you have a hard time finding your way in life and you live your life very differently from those who have easily learned to read.
In my fifties my wife encouraged me to enroll in an adult reading program, and after that my life changed forever. I spent over two years in the adult reading program. Before I left, I did some public speaking for the reading program. One of my talks was to some LD kids. I just told them my life story. Afterword they stood next to me like I was someone important, and I could see in their eyes that my words had made a difference to them.
The word got out and other schools ask me to come and speak. The lady next door to us was a teacher, and she was working on her masters degree at Iowa State University. She told her instructor, Dr. Ruth Barnhart, about me and then I was asked to come to her class to talk. Dr. Barnhart liked my story so I continued talking to her classes two times a year for the next eight years.
A lot of student teachers from the class got to know me and later, when they became teachers, they would ask me to come to their schools to speak. The more I spoke the more energy I got, and this also brought healing to my life. I became very interested in why some people struggled to read and others did not. I went to a lot of LD conferences to learn more. I asked a lot of questions, and people got to know me and became interested in me. I was able to have conversations with some of the researchers. I learned from people who worked in the reading and adult literacy field. I even did some work with them. The more I learned, the more confidence I got to tell my story.
In 1989 I started to volunteer at a middle school in Eagle Grove, Iowa, to work with the LD kids two days a week. The kids felt comfortable reading to me. When I was asked to speak at a wellness day at a school in Ames, Iowa, I thought it would be nice to take the LD class and their teacher with me. I made arrangements with the two schools and it was okay. A local meteorologist, Pam Dale, was speaking at this event because she was disabled due to an accident. When I finished speaking she came over to me and invited our group of students to visit her WOI television studio. I thought, what a beautiful opportunity.
The TV studio was part of Iowa State University’s campus at that time. When we got there, only one parking space was left and the sign said “fifteen minutes parking”. This was the only parking space for many blocks. Mary Sersland, the LD teacher, said that the meter person was just leaving and probably wouldn’t be back for an hour, so I parked the van and we went in. Pam was there to meet us. She explained things and showed us around. It took a little over an hour. This was a treat for all of us. We all got into the van and just as we were leaving we could see the meter lady coming. The kids got a kick out of how close we came to getting a ticket.
One of my favorite places to talk was Cedar Falls, Iowa. There were four different classes of LD students brought together to hear me. Beforehand the teachers told me that some of the students were hyperactive and that they would have a hard time sitting still. After I was introduced, and they understood that I had been one of them, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. They had never heard an adult talk to them in this way before. It was hard for them to believe that adults had reading problems. I spoke for over thirty minutes The teachers were amazed, they told me that they had never had a group of LD students sit so quiet. This seemed to be a pattern when I went from school to school.
In a visit to the Quad Cites, a group of five Eastern Iowa cities on the Iowa–Illinois boundary, I was speaking to regular and LD students together. As I was speaking I could see this small boy looking at me intensely, and hanging on to every word I was saying. At the end, there was time for questions. When it comes to asking me questions once the kids get started they are never shy. The little boy, who may have been learning disabled, asked me questions such as “Do you like to read now?” and “Why is it that you struggled so much to learn to read?” Maybe he thought he was not hearing me right. Looking at him I could see some of myself in him. I feel it was hard for him to believe there was still hope for him to learn to read.
In the past I had taught an adult education class at the Iowa Central Community College at Fort Dodge. Understanding Learning Disabilities was a three-hour class that met once a year in the fall. The people who attended were mostly parents and teachers. Because of this class, a lot of parents would call me looking for help, advice and some understanding. What I had to say can only come from experience living life as a dyslexic. There wasn’t anything I could say to make their child’s problem go away. Sometimes I wished I had a magic wand and could make things happen. One thing I could give them, however, was encouragement. My advice, always the same, was not to give up, to keep trying and that there was hope.
A lady who I had never met in person would call me on many occasions to talk about her son’s reading problem. I gave her as much of my time and encouragement as possible, and told her she should try to find someone to work with him one-on-one outside the school, and never give up on him. About five years later I was in the hospital for some health problems. One day a strange nurse came into my room. She told me we had spoken on the phone before, and who she was. She thanked me for listening to her at a time when she needed someone to talk to. She said she needed someone to give her encouragement and advice at that time in her life. She told me her son was doing fine now in school after a lot of help and hard work. Getting this kind of news, especially in the hospital, was very uplifting. I’m sure there are many other good stories that happened that I will never know about. I still get phone calls from parents, and I try to help.
From the time I was tested for dyslexia in 1984 until now, much has happened. I have learned a lot from the children in the classes I spoke to, and I became close to them. We have cried together when things were not going well, and I have seen their faces of joy when they found some success in their lives. The good memories of going to these different schools will always be with me.
There has been a lot of good research done on learning disabilities. Good books have been written. There is better training for teachers now. More people with reading challenges have become open about their reading problems and become role models. But there are a lot more people coming out of the closet today who have not been helped – and our country is not equipped to take care of all of them. Society still does not understand our disability. This is a hidden disability and you can’t tell by looking who has it. You can’t take a pill to cure it – that’s why it is so hard to understand. But there is still hope… and our dreams still live on.