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'A Good Feeling': This Dallas Man Learned How To Read At 51 Years Old

George Brister, left, with his teacher, Doug Butler. The two met through Literary Instruction for Texas.

The StoryCorps MobileBooth is in Dallas, and for the next few weeks, we’ll hear some of the stories being shared by North Texans. 

George Brister moved to Dallas from New Orleans when he was 17. He worked various jobs for years, but could never get ahead because he didn’t know how to read or write.

At 51, he went back to school. He and his teacher, Doug Butler, met through the Literacy Instruction for Texas.

The two sat down to talk about how reading has changed Brister’s life.

Kept it a secret

Tell us a little bit about how it’s possible that you are 51 years old and can’t read and write yet,” Butler says.

Brister kept his inability to read or write a secret from employers for years.

"I took whatever [my bosses] did, I took whatever they paid me, whether they were paying me right or not, I just made the best of what I had,” he says. “I had to work extra hard to keep the job.”

“Why wouldn’t you want someone to know about that?” Butler asks.

Because the abuse is even worse when people are aware of your weakness,” Brister says.

'You can't mess over me no more'

However, his weakness left him trapped in jobs he didn’t like. That all changed when he met Butler through LIFT, and learned how to read. He’s learning how to use a computer and do basic things like setting up an email account and a Facebook page.

Most people dread going to the doctor, but for Brister, it was a good experience. For once, he could fill out his own forms.

However, some of the things he learned through his new skills were not so pleasant.

“I found out people was taking my money,” he says. “You’d be surprised. You think somebody loves you but they be robbing you. You can’t mess over me no more.”

And he’s also learning that literacy was not just a problem for his generation.

“I’m finding out through church, through my wife, who does vacation Bible school, this stuff is still going on today,” Brister said. “We need to do something about this.”

About StoryCorps

StoryCorps is a national initiative to record and collect stories of everyday people. These excerpts were selected and produced by KERA.

About adult illiteracy

One of every seven American adults can’t read, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. In North Texas, it’s even worse: one in five adults are illiterate.

Lisa Hembry is the president and CEO of LIFT, Literacy Instruction for Texas. She says many people make a mistake in thinking adult illiteracy is an intelligence issue.

"Most people who are illiterate have developed other skills that help them manage their lives fairly efficiently," she says. 

Hembry says 40 percent of the people who come to LIFT are native English speakers. Some dropped out of high school; others graduated.

"Most of our folks have had a really negative experience in school," Hembry says. "They were put in special ed classes, or they were acting up and acting out."

The effects can be devastating on adults, says Catherine Thompson. She’s the executive director of the Tarrant Literacy Coalition.

"They often have a very difficult time holding a job," Thompson says. "The vast majority of them live in poverty."

When an adult does learn how to read, it can be life-changing.

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.