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Milton Whitley: Facing His Fear Of Learning To Read

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Milton Whitley spent half a century not telling anyone that he couldn't read before he finally decided to make a change.
Literacy Council of Montgomery County
Milton Whitley spent half a century not telling anyone that he couldn't read before he finally decided to make a change.

Milton Whitley dropped out of school at age 14 and was not able to read or write for the first 52 years of his life. He ended up homeless -- without any real hope of learning to read -- until he met a tutor in a Montgomery County public library. His education re-started in 2005, when he visited a dental clinic.

I go there, and I ask the lady, 'Can you help me fill the form out?' She said, 'No, you have to do it.' I looked at her, and said, 'Ma'am, I cannot do it.' I sat there most of the whole day, looking at the paper, just looking at it. So I start checking off boxes, random, and gave it back to her. She laughed out loud, with people sitting in there. She said, 'You're pregnant?' And I walked out.

At that point, I had to get help real quick. I knew I had to open up to someone to let them know about me, what I didn't know. I was homeless -- I had to do anger management, counseling, classes, drug classes, Ms. Pat Parker, she asked me every day, did I want to say anything. And I would always so no. I was so angry. Finally, I opened up and told her. She got me to the vocabulary man, and I told him I wanted my G.E.D.® He said okay, and he filled out some papers. I brought them to my counselor, he wrote a check, I went and got the books. I was feeling good, I got the books and all.

Then I go to Rockville High School to do the placement test, and they were true and false. Here we go again, doing random boxes -- I couldn't read a word.

But God was with me because the placement test came out pretty good. They said, 'go to this class, and this class, and this class,' so I lucked out. But when I got to those classes, I couldn't do it, because it was too much for me. He said, Milton, go to the library, go upstairs to the literacy program, and ask for a tutor. And I did that, and I found Ms. Mary-ellen.

And my life changed. She said, 'It's going to be tough, because learning is not a straight line. It's going to be up and down.' And I remember when I first read a sentence, I was so tired, I felt like I ran a mile. She said, 'that going to come, you have to read more and more.' And I did, we did work on, even like hangman, and crossword puzzles -- things I'd seen people do on buses and stuff, that I always wanted to do.

That's how we got to the dictionary, like, what does an "A" sound like, all the vowels. The dictionary is on my computer, and I say the word, and it says it in my voice, and I just go over and over it. What i know today she taught me, and never laughed at me when I got something wrong. She taught me how to really let fear go.

There was no more hiding nothing. I put everything on the table -- everything. My life is changed. I can read. I can read. I'm not even afraid of the words that I don't know, because I want to take my education as high as I can. Because it's something that no one can take away from me. You can have my shirt, my hat, my shoes … but you can't take that away.

Milton Whitley is part of WAMU's Lifelong Learning series, a partnership with the Faces of Learning Campaign to share personal stories of powerful learning experiences. Share your own story.

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