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Mom shares her secret after 40 years: Effects of Illiteracy

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[Crowds of people walking on city streets. Words on screen.] Revealing Deep Secrets. Can Change Lives Forever. The Most Intimate Moments of their Lives. Filmed Entirely by Themselves. Secret Lives of Americans.

[Sign reads Mount Vernon. Railroad tracks; woman walking in restaurant]

[Woman speaking] My name is Cleo, I’m 54 years old. I’m from Mount Vernon, Alabama.

[In restaurant. Female server speaking] Hey! How’re you doing today?

[Cleo] I’m doing good, thank you.

[Female Server] Can I get you started today with some peach tea or some Coke?

[Cleo] Do you have pink lemonade?

[Female Server] We have pink lemonade, yes, ma’am.

[Cleo] I’ll take that.

[Female Server] Ok, I’ll be right back with your lemonade.

[Cleo] All right, thank you.

[Cleo] I’m very close with my family, but I have kept a secret from them all of my life. [family pictures]

Mainly I dodge these kinds of restaurants because of the menu. There’s no picture for the food that you want to order.

[Cleo now speaking to female server] What’s the best thing that you have?

[Female Server] We have the Sampler, which is going to be right here on the menu.[Close up view of menu]

[Cleo] Ok, I’ll think I’ll try that.

[Female Server] Ok, well, I’ll get that ready for you, shouldn’t take too long.

[Cleo] Ok, thank you.

[Female Server] My pleasure.

[Cleo] This is the way that I do when I go into a restaurant with nothing but reading on the menu. I just order whatever the waitress tells me about.[Server brings sampler]

[Cleo in car] I have a secret. My secret is I didn't learn to read. I went through 12 years of school and I didn’t learn to read [Cleo begins to cry].

[Words on screen] About 1 in 6 adults, 36 million Americans, have less than a basic literacy level. *organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

[Cleo driving] Everything you do we need to know how to read. When you go up and down the road you need to know how to read the signs. I do a lot of landmarks, a lot of colors and lot of trees and a lot of different objects. And when I do it once, I always remember how to go back. I was truck driver for 17 years. I was able to manage getting my Class A license because they had an audio recording and it would read you the questions and answers and it was multiple choice answers and then you choose from multiple choice and I passed that test, thank God.

This is where I went to middle school. This is where my brother found out about my reading. He started to help me with my homework. You must expect that I don’t have a diploma from high school, but I do. [Walking in neighborhood and yard] Looking back I don’t know how I got that diploma...looking back, I don't know. I have been really hard on myself, thinking that maybe there was something that I had done.

I was afraid that my friends would find out and wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore, I felt like they would think I was a dummy or something, you know.

[Women speaking - man reading in a library]. The stigma surrounding illiteracy prevents a lot of people from asking for help.

[Man speaks] You feel like you are the only one.

[Woman driving a bus - another man speaking] She hid her lack of reading skills from everyone, even her daughters. [woman] I was ashamed.

It’s very common for people to hide it and they figure out how to work around disclosing the fact that they don’t know how to read.

[Female newscaster on NBC] The test results are in and for American students the numbers are going in the wrong direction.

[Man speaking in library from ABC news] Undiagnosed learning disorders, poverty, unstable home life are all factors contributing to illiteracy.

[Female newscaster] For America, an economic super power, its young people are not where they need to be for the future.

[Words on screen] 25% of 12th grade high school students do not meet a basic level of reading achievement. * US Department of Education

[Cleo at Goodwill] I’d spend some time out here in the parking lot at the Goodwill Easter Seals trying to decide if I was going to go in. This is where my reading begins. [Enters] And I’ve been learning ever since. I’m making progress in my reading, but I’m still too nervous to tell my sons about my secret

[Outside with son, hugs son]. My oldest son Brian is 22 years old. [in car with son] Brandon is 17 years old. I have raised Honor students and I’m very proud of them, but I’ve been afraid to tell them all of my life.

I do think I am ready to tell my sisters and my family first. [family get-together] This is my little Cyleigh [Cleo’s niece] This is my baby. My little Cyleigh and my little Cleo. These are my nieces. I am very nervous about how they are going to feel when I tell them about me not being able to read. I don’t want my nieces to be able to end up like me. I want them and my sons to do better than I did.

[Speaking to family] I wanted to share something with you guys about myself that I haven’t shared, not that I wanted to keep secrets from the family because we normally talk about everything. [pause] When I went to high school, I didn’t learn to read. [Family is silent and choked up].

[Cyleigh] Well, I feel..I don’t really no how to feel about it, but I am shocked, because how did you go this far?]

[Niece Cleo] I mean I thought you could read because I seen you read before.

[Cleo] Throughout my life, I made alternatives for things. When I went and turned the lights on, I asked them what date my bill was going to be due and I knew to go and pay my bills.

[Mildred, the sister] You're always so, so strong, pushing all the kids to get an education, get an education, because you accomplished so much without one; God is good, you still have a life ahead of you and you got to read.

[Cleo] I know, that yes

[Rebecca - sister] I hate that you’ve had to struggle with this so long, but at the same time I really do admire's great...and I tried so hard, but for being as brave as you are and to go as far as you have in life, you really inspire me [Rebecca crying] to push harder. To push my kids harder and to pay more attention to it so they...and make sure that they are getting what they need from school.

[Cleo] When my niece came home one day and said, "Mama, everyone in class can read and I can’t." I think I cried on and off, well because, well I was so scared to hear those words, and I was so glad that you were able to tell your mom. And I wished I could have told somebody and I’m so happy you can read because then you’re going to come read me a story, right? [Niece shakes her head “yes” ]

[Nephew] Maybe you all can read one together. [family laughs]

[Cleo] I would love to sit with Cyleigh and read with her some day.

[Mildred] Your family is behind you 100%.

[Cleo] I wasn’t able to read to my kids, but I am hoping to be able to read to my nieces. [hugs]

[screen reads] In a study of low literate adults, 53% have never told their children about their literacy problems. * Patient Education and Counseling Journal

[Shopping in grocery store] The hardest part of a grocery store is food that doesn’t have pictures on it. I don’t know what this is... [Looking at a bottle of aloe juice ]. I don’t know what this is.

[Cleo in doctor’s office] When I do the doctor’s office, they give you a clipboard with all of this paperwork to fill out. It’s a lot of daily things that's tough, not being able to read.

[At home] A lot of my mail never gets opened. [box full of unopened letters ] I just take it and put it in the box.

[Driving] Today, I am heading over to my oldest son Brian’s to reveal my secret to him. Brian is doing a double major in college. I pray that he continues to study.

Here I am. [getting out of car and entering apartment ]

[Brian] Hey.

[Cleo] Hi.

[Inside apartment] Even though I have a high school diploma (long emotional pause), I didn’t learn how to read.

[What she says sinks in, Brian speaks] Well, I could have been there for you, I could have been the one to help you. But I am glad you finally came to me and talked about it.

[Cleo] Well it’s kind of tough. I feel like I haven’t been there for you as much as I should have been.

[Brian] You have been a big role model in my life. Being a single parent, just minimal income...all I can do is just be thankful for what we have. I just want you to know I appreciate anything. If you ever need help with have been helping me out for 22 years of my life and it is time for me to start paying back. And I just want to say I love you.

[Cleo] I love you, too

[Brian] Always in my eyes you will be superwoman.

[laughter and hugs]

[Cleo] My biggest concern was Brian. But I am relieved that he took it the way he did. [blue sky]

[Cleo in classroom, woman starts speaking] This is Cleo and we’re going to hear Cleo read. She’s one of our people that did really really well in the program.

[Cleo reading] fact in the end, it was kind of nice. [clapping]

[Woman] That was really good.

[Cleo smiling] Thank you all for listening. I am very proud of myself. I did it! I am very relieved.

I think I am ready to read to my nieces. [driving] Reading to my class gave me the confidence I needed. I think I'm ready to read to my nieces. So I am headed to the library.

[Talking to librarian] Hi, I was just wondering if you can help me to get a library card. I am working on learning how to read.

[Librarian at desk] Very good. Now it's that quick. Your card is in the system and activated. You now have a library card. Welcome to the library.

[Cleo] Thank you.

[Librarian] You’re welcome

[Cleo] I never had a reason to get a library card. Now I got a library card and I am going to try to work with it and use it. I always wanted to read many books, every book. [laughs] I wished I could read every book. [looking at books and choosing] I am going to try this book.

[librarian] Thank you, I need your library card.

[Cleo] This is my very first library book

[librarian smiling] Well let’s not make it the last. Get more after this one.

[Cleo] Thank you so much.

[Cleo driving] I feel marvelous, I feel marvelous.

[Cleo reading to nieces] The Tale of Naughty Little Rabbit. This is a good book. [Cleo reading] here he is, look, one naughty little rabbit running for his life.

Now that I have revealed my secret I feel like a lot of weight has come up off of me...that I can move a little bit better, do a little bit better, [Music playing]. It’s a lot of people in the world like me. I would like my story to help them, not just young people, but old people get themselves some help. I feel good with the thought of being able to read and go to college - a dream that I have always had since high school. [Smiling]

[Walking with son]

[With nieces. Cyleigh speaking.] I think this is the first time that I enjoyed reading.

[Cleo] Maybe we can read more and more books together so both of us can get better and better as we go. I am not going to let anything get in my way. The weight of the world is off my shoulders.

Credits: all 3 Media American. MME filmpool

Video Transcript

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Watch "For my Daughter" video on YouTube

Video Title: For My Daughter

ProLiteracy logo.

[Garage door Man with daughter entering garage to get a toy red wagon]

[Dad] You are going to need your wagon today. You know that right?

[Daughter smiling] Yes.

[Dad] Are you excited?

[Daughter smiling] Yes.

[Dad] Are ya? Because you’re going to get so many books, your going to have to have a wagon to put them in.

[Daughter] Yep, I am going to get a lot.

Give you me a hug. I hope you’re excited, you’re excited aren’t you?

[Daughter] Yep.

[Dad] Great.

[Daughter] Bye!

[Dad]. Love you.

[Music] They wave goodbye.

[Music playing] Girl pulls wagon along sidewalk and goes into the library. She chooses a book. She brings a big stack of books to the librarian and smiles. She piles the books in the wagon and brings them home. Dad enters home and takes off jacket. Girls shows him a book.

[Daughter] Look what I got at the library.

[Man] Wow. [He looks at them spread out on the dining room table.] Wow, you did get a lot of books.

[Daughter] I carried them all myself.

[Camera close up of children’s books and phonics books] Wow, you got a lot of books.
Did you already read some of them? Which ones did you read?

[Daughter points to books] This one and that one and this one. This one is really fun.

[Dad] You like that one? [Picks up book titled The Little Engine That Could] What’s this one?

[Daughter] That’s The Little Engine That Could. That’s my favorite of ALL the books.

[Dad] Hmmmm. Wow, I’m excited. You hungry?

[Daughter] Yeah!

[Later, Dad reading the book, The Little Engine That Could, slowly and carefully to his daughter on the couch] All these wonderful things to the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. She puffed along verily. Then all of sudden she stopped with a jerk. She simply could not go another inch. She tried and she tried but her wheel would not turn.

[Daughter hugs Dad] I’m so proud of you, Daddy. [She kisses his cheek]

[He tears up and continues reading] What were all those good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain going to do?

[Words on screen with music ] Every adult has the ability to fulfill his or her life through literacy. - Proliteracy.

[Proliteracy logo. Words on screen: 36 million adults in America can’t read. They need your help. Join the fight for a more literate society!]