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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
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How I learned to read
Brave adults confess their struggles with this fundamental skill
Dwayne McMillen: 'I was taken out of the decision in almost every scenario. Powerless.'
Dwayne McMillen: 'I was taken out of the decision in almost every scenario. Powerless.'
Credit:Carolyn Fath

For most of us, being able to read is like being able to walk. You don't think about it until your leg is in a cast. But what if you couldn't read? How would you manage your medicine? What good would you be at helping your children with their schoolwork? How could you order from a menu?

In the latter example, the answer is, by using the pictures. That's what 36-year-old Hilario Reyes did at McDonald's until the day came when the pictures weren't enough. The young person behind the counter asked him a menu-specific question he couldn't answer without the ability to decode the words.

Reyes describes his reaction in a way similar to others who are caught in that moment. They explain a nauseous combination of panic, embarrassment and shame.

Reyes made his way to the Madison Literacy Network, where in 2011 alone, more than 600 volunteers gave over 25,000 hours to help adult learners read. Last Wednesday night, Reyes did just that. At a podium in front of 100 people at Edgewood College.

"Reading Between the Wines" was a fancy fundraiser, complete with a string quartet, to raise awareness of one of our most fundamental needs: the ability to read and write.

Reyes knocked it out of the park. His essay described his childhood in Mexico and then compared it to that of his children, now learning and growing alongside him here in Madison.

"I'm very happy to write a story in English to show my kids how different my childhood was," he read.

We're talking about many levels of courage here. The courage to emerge from the shadows of misunderstanding and being misunderstood. The courage to act on that by seeking help. The determination to stick it out once lessons begin - even in the midst of raising a family and working full time. The courage to trust a teacher.

And then, then, to read aloud in front of a crowd! The thought of which causes many lifelong readers to squirm with nervousness.

Last week, a half-dozen readers held the fundraiser crowd in the palm of their hands. Their stories showed how learning to read is like being released from confinement.

There was Sheraqa Nisar, with a smile as beautiful as his name. Let me ask you something. What have you accomplished in the past three years? Nisar arrived from Pakistan three years ago with no English whatsoever. He's now a U.S. citizen, reads and writes English and works full time.

Lorenzo Cruz read his story in the stop-start, off-timed cadence of a new language user. It somehow gave the story an extra eloquence. His story described leaving his family to come to the U.S. for work; a long series of kitchen jobs that continue even now. It included some of the best insider analysis of restaurant work this side of Anthony Bourdain.

"At first, when I started, I couldn't even cook an egg," he read, to great laughter in front of and behind the podium.

Toward the end of the night an elegant African American man in a dress suit took the podium. "Bet you didn't expect to see me here," Dwayne McMillen said. He was right. The evening had featured a series of adult learners tackling literacy as a second language challenge. Like many of us, McMillen is still on his first.

But unlike many of us, he managed to cut, fake and dodge his way through high school without ever learning to read; quite a survival accomplishment on its own.

At well over six feet tall, McMillen was a commanding presence at the lectern space, which he turned into a confessional once he began.

"Not being able to read and write as well as others has taken a lifelong toll on my confidence and my ability to make sound decisions."

Thing is, you'd never know that watching the 41-year-old speak and read. He was confident, engaging, blaringly honest and funny. "Not being able to read makes you feel this tall," he said, holding his index finger and thumb to form a tiny space. "Which is kind of hard when you're this tall."

"To stand up before you guys tonight is a blessing," he said, at the conclusion of his remarks.

Afterward McMillen told me more about the darkness, the imprisonment he felt before he could read and write. "I was taken out of the decision in almost every scenario," he said. "Powerless."

He described a store job he had where he had to write out service slips for customers. "I camouflaged my writing with cursive," he said. "I called it my doctor's writing."

In this act of survival he, without malice, turned the literacy tables on those customers, people who walked away squinting at their sales slips. "They were too embarrassed to say they couldn't read it!" said McMillen.

I hope you enjoyed reading this story. Think about it.

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