A Son’s Literacy Story

Peter Bailey, of Hope, BC won our Literacy is Life contest in 2014 with the following entry. In his story, which was written entirely on an iPhone, he tells the reader about his relationship with his father, who had difficulty reading due to a learning disability. 

My father loved to read. He could sit all evening with great pieces of literature, deep in concentration, excluding all else.

It was as an adult that I came to realize he had a learning disability.

When I was growing up in London in the 60’s and 70’s I came to realize there was something different about my dad when compared with my friend’s dads. My father would dictate letters to my mother. School notes, lists, business correspondence were produced with excellent grammar and style. But dad couldn’t write. He said it was due to a bomb blast, during the war that nearly killed him when he was a baby. It gave him a “mental block.”

He stayed in school until 14, getting work in a machine shop, making components at piece rate. He joined the RAF when he was old enough and learned heavy haul driving. But once in civilian life he struggled with employment.

In those days it was believed that if you couldn’t write then you were an idiot. I knew my dad wasn’t stupid but I felt his shame. I watched him try to sign his name. His slow, deliberate strokes revealed a clumsy, child-like signature.

I asked him how he was able to read but not write. He explained that he could decode a sentence by reading the words he recognized and then form the context for the rest of the sentence. It was little wonder that he had to concentrate so much while reading.

He did seek out help through an early literacy program but little headway was made and he gave up.

Sadly dad’s illiteracy was a major problem for our family. He would lose jobs when the employer discovered he couldn’t read. Sometimes he would quit because of being “found out.” I came to understand that dad’s disability was a secret. The continued cycle of unemployment led to long periods of poverty. He was raised to be believe that a man’s role was to provide, and he couldn’t. Dad was cursed by his intelligence. He had a gift for invention and math. He would design machines, engines and musical instruments. He understood philosophy and politics but was hampered to communicate anything through writing.

It was hard on my sister and I as we entered the teen years. We lived with a man who had been beaten down. His frustration and shame led to unhealthy choices. This, compounded by poverty, led to a fractured relationship. That shame impacted us in that we were embarrassed by our home, our clothes and our ability to fit in with our peers. We sought escape through substances and risky behaviour and we left home while still young.

It’s important to say that there were successes. Despite his severe disability, my father achieved amazing feats even with limited personal and financial resources.

In 1969 he designed and constructed a motor home, using a converted laundry van. He then drove his family and a dozen hippies from London to India. Two years later he did it again using a fire truck and trailer as his starting point.

Dad designed a new type of musical drum and marketed in for a few years. Sadly his lack of business acumen and the usual troubles caused disaster.

At times chaos reigned in our lives and that led to the loss of his marriage, the loss of his family and the loss of his friendships.

We don’t talk much these days. When we do it’s short. I send emails and he will call on occasion. I don’t see much left to salvage. The damage is too great to repair, the losses too many to rebuild. He is ill from an unhealthy lifestyle and chooses to live far away from the resources he may need one day soon.

This story has no happy ending. It is the story of loss for a man who was challenged during a time of prejudice. Dad would have loved to have been a marine engineer. He would design these amazing crafts.

One time I took his plans (drawn on the inside of cigarette packs) and created an artist’s rendition. I showed his rig in a stormy sea; the waves crashing up against the walls. I worked through the night to finish it before he awoke. The next morning we sat together as he gazed at the picture. We both knew that it was a fantasy. It would never be.

So what of me, the child survivor of illiteracy? I live a life I love. Happily married with two remarkable children, I work in social health. I helped establish a literacy agency that provides services to the community. I volunteer with elementary students. I help people engage with their passion. I look for a world where learning disabilities are addressed and never discriminated against. I am filled with hope through the inspiration of those working in education who make a difference every day.

I believe in a strong public education system where learning disabilities are recognized and addressed.

We have the knowledge to deal with this disability and we need a fully functioning system to do so. I am concerned about government funding for our schools in BC. Children must never fall through the gaps to live a life of loss.

Peter Bailey

Sent from my iPhone

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