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Chicago author Rob Shindler on the importance of literacy at any age

Tutor Rob Shindler (right) with student he calls “King Charles.”

Tutor Rob Shindler (right) with a student he calls “King Charles.”

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Updated: December 17, 2013 3:28PM

As you read this, there are 32 million adults (14 percent of the U.S. population) who can’t read. Twenty-one percent of U.S. adults read below the fifth-grade level.

If you are still reading this, it is because you think these statistics are tragic. Chicago is noted for many things; illiteracy is not one that we should be proud of.

I never thought about any of this until my wife and I were told that our 5-year-old son could not read, would not be able to read and that we should not expect him to ever read to his grade level because he had a learning disability.

“Could not, would not, should not” was not anything I was willing to accept. So I did the only thing I could think of: I went to Literacy Chicago to volunteer as a tutor and to learn how to teach strangers to read. I planned to use what I learned helping others to teach my son. He had a lifetime ahead of him, and he was going to read.

The director of reading at Literacy Chicago, June Porter (whom I love and call “Aunt June”), sympathized with me and somehow knew that I would eventually have a lot to contribute. I went through training and began teaching classes three nights a week.

I am ashamed to admit that up until that point, I had no idea how painful life can be for illiterate adults. Imagine only ordering hot dogs or hamburgers when you go out to a restaurant because those are the only items that you can read on the menu. That concept had such impact on me that I titled my eventual book (which I published last year) Hot Dogs & Hamburgers.

Charles, a handsome African-American 63-year-old salesman, really touched me. He wore carefully pressed three-piece suits to class and had an antique watch that hung from his pocket. He read at a second-grade level but had the ability to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. He had a job working for a lawyer and would go to court all dressed up, wearing faux bifocals. Yet he couldn’t read a menu until he came to my class. Nobody except his family and a few close friends knew he was illiterate. The journey we took together created a lifelong bond.

I’m proud to say that my son, now age 16, is reading at his grade level, and my kids now often join me at class and help teach our extended family of students. But what I also took away from the experience was that you should never be judgmental of something you do not understand. Instead, step in and be part of the solution.

Visit for links to programs near you and information on how you can help combat illiteracy, or stop by Literacy Chicago (17 N. State) on Nov. 9 for a tutor-training seminar.

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