The Real American Success Story

This is what resonated with me: “Success in education depends a great deal on reading and writing”

My story is one of two brothers who were born into poverty and raised by the same two parents who both dropped out of high school at age 14. To earn money, our mother worked, off and on, baking artistically decorated cakes at home and a variety of odd jobs including working in the laundry at the City of Hope. Our father worked in construction, was an alcoholic and a gambler (he loved the horses and often got off work early to make the last two races at Santa Anita).

My older brother (12 years older) grew up illiterate and worked hard all of his life at back breaking jobs that require3d physical strength that paid mostly poverty wages. Richard would contribute to the birth of seven children that we know of and most of them would turn out illiterate like him and also end up struggling to survive.

By the time I was seven and my brother 19, Richard, still illiterate, had already spent his first stint in prison for being involved in an armed robbery. Before he died at age 64 a broken man who was a heavy smoker and alcoholic, he’d spend 15 years of his life in prison but he bragged that he never lived off welfare. That’s not entirely true. His 2nd wife could read and write and she applied for food stamps and other forms of child support linked to welfare programs but my brother never saw that money. Whatever he handed his wife or kept in his pocket he earned the hard way.

At seven, my mother was told I would never learn to read or write. On the way home from school in the car, she cried and said I would learn to read—that she wouldn’t make the same mistake with me that she made with my brother Richard when she heard that same verdict from some education expert (not a teacher) who based that judgement on a test when he was in 1st grade—probably the same flawed test they gave me years later. I wonder who created that test and profited off of it.

My mother, with advice from my 1st grade teacher, taught me to read at home. At times it was brutal. She used corporal punishment pain to force me to learn out of fear, and I did. I even became an avid reader who ended up loving books, libraries and book stores. That is where my path through life diverged from my brother’s. Instead of going to prison like he did, I ended up in the Marines and fought in Vietnam after barely graduating from high school. Out of the Marines, I went to college on the GI Bill and if I had not been an avid reader who had read hundreds if not thousands of books while a child and teen, I would have never made it through college. Learning to write took decades of effort on my part. We were both born into poverty and we both had severe dyslexia. Without my mother’s heroic effort that she would probably be condemned for today due to her use of corporal punishment, I’m convinced that I would have entered that same school to prison pipeline my brother was shoved in by those so-called test experts who contributed to his ruined life.

radical eyes for equity

In the early 1990s after we had moved into our first stand-alone home (having lived in an owned townhouse a few years), my wife and I bought a Honda Accord—a typically American milestone of having finally risen above our station as Honda Civic owners.

As I was dong the paperwork for this car, I realized that the sale price was the same as what my parents had paid for their house in 1971 (a house, by the way, that still is more square footage than any house I have ever owned): $22,500.

I am one generation removed from the white working-class idealists who are my parents, both having been raised in the South during the 1950s—my mother the daughter of a mill worker and my father the son of a gas station owner.

Buying that Honda Accord, however, did not at that moment fill me with pride or a sense accomplishment…

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4 thoughts on “The Real American Success Story

  1. I started to respond to your powerful story on Paul Thomas’ blog but decided I just wanted to say thank you for sharing!! I had such a different experience only because my parents who had been very poor, were also very educated (how to explain that other than that it was a fight for my southern mother whose parents didn’t understand her and my father, whose family was large and Jewish and very enamored of scholarly endeavors but had no money). But we also had no money so going to my rich school was very painful. Anyway, I do know that I was saved by my love of reading. Writing has always been much harder for me. So glad that you shared – we can always wonder if your brother could have been saved by reading and writing. I like to think so. I’m a librarian and one of the most powerful statistics I’ve seen is how illiterate are the people who populate our prisons. Thank you again!!

    • You’re welcome. I think if my brother had been literate and an avid reader his life would have been totally different. I read a study recenlty that said only 20% of the population reads at the highest literacy level but 50%+ of public school teachers do.

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