My name is Milton Whitley. I am 57 years old and until five years ago, could barely read or write.

School was especially hard for me. The teacher used to spank me with a big stick when I didn’t know something. It put fear in my heart and made it hard for me to learn. People called me retarded. I believed I was retarded.

I dropped out of school when I was 14. Didn’t know what to do because I couldn’t read or write. For a long time, I worked in a sign shop installing signs. But, when I hung these signs I didn’t even know what they were saying. If one letter was off, if it was spelled wrong, I didn’t even know.

Not knowing how to read or write made everything difficult. It made me boil with anger inside.

I was using drugs. I got with people just like me; used drugs; no education. I didn’t care about education. All I knew were slang words. Street language.

One time, I was given a form to fill out at a doctor’s office. I couldn’t read a word. I sat in my chair staring at the paper for a long time. Finally, I walked up to the desk and asked the receptionist if she would help me and she said “no.” I went back and sat some more. Finally, I just started checking boxes on the paper. When I gave the form to the receptionist, she glanced at it and said loudly, “You’re pregnant?!” I was so embarrassed. I walked out of the office in shame.

Because I used drugs and was illiterate, I was unemployable. That led to homelessness. When I arrived at the men’s shelter, I thought it was the worse thing that ever happened to me. My therapist in an outpatient program asked me if I had anything to say. I told her, “No, I have nothing to say.” But, she finally got me to talk. And believe me, when I started, I didn’t want to stop! I poured my whole life out to her. So she said, “I’m going to work with you, Milton.”

I enrolled in a GED class. But, I couldn’t understand anything because I really couldn’t read or write at all. Then my counselor sent me to the Literacy Council of Montgomery County, a place where students can work one-on-one with tutors.

I was scared. I thought I was unteachable. But, I desperately wanted to learn how to read and write. The Literacy Council found me a tutor I could trust. She promised me I could learn. When she taught me the sounds each letter of the alphabet makes, I knew I could learn. I knew I would eventually be able to read! When I finished the first textbook, a big weight was lifted off my mind. I felt I could be successful. I felt I could be part of this world.

My tutor and I have worked together for almost five years now! I can read and write! I read the paper every morning—especially the sports section! I read books for fun. Some make me laugh and some make me cry. It doesn’t matter. I read them all!

Since becoming literate, I’ve had some amazing experiences. Things I never dreamed possible. In 2010, I was named “Outstanding Student of the Year” by the national organization ProLiteracy. They flew me to their annual convention to receive the award. It was the first time I had ever been on a plane. I’ve prepared testimony for the Maryland State Legislature. I’ve lobbied Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill. I’ve told my story to high school students. I’ve spoken at graduation ceremonies. And, I’ve written a manuscript about my life that I hope will be published! At 57, I’m loving life! Literacy is powerful.

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