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Here’s How a Published Author Overcame #Illiteracy at the Age of 16

By 08/09/2016September 9th, 2016guest post, novel, writing

Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, author Lillian Slugocki spoke about short stories, a post that continues to be popular. Today it is my absolute pleasure to welcome journalist Valerie Waterhouse who interviews author Aileen Godat, about how, aged 16, she overcame illiteracy.

Combat illiteracy ——————–

  1. Like most North Americans, you attended school (in Queens, New York) — but aged 16, you realized you were illiterate. How is it possible for a child in a modern-day, occidental country to slip through the education net?

A: In 1964, I was 11 years old. In the eyes of my mother, the Sisters of Charity, my grandparents and all others in my young life, I was a troubled girl. Aside from the family fights that trumpeted from our apartment, no one knew what was happening after dark in the confines of my home. If someone knew, would they have intervened? Would they have understood why I was unable to learn in school? Would they have known what to do to help me? My brother had the support of clubs, teams and activities designed to assist boyhood and grow successful men. Girls didn’t need an education to change a diaper, wash a floor or clean a house. As my mother before me, I was directed towards domesticity. So, my guess is that it was easier to let the ‘bad girl’ slip through the cracks than it was to address the cause of my difficulty.

2. Illiteracy, it seems, often masks greater troubles. In the USA, for instance, 70% of prison inmates are illiterate. Fortunately, your life took a totally different path. What made you finally acknowledge your illiteracy?

A: One morning while taking a shower at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between the shampoo and conditioner bottle. I was compelled to do something.

3. Interesting that something so banal yet important turned around your life! You then taught yourself to read and write.  How did you manage this?

A: Going back to school was not an option. I had no trust for the system. I began phonetically, it seemed like the natural place to start since I knew words like stop, house, cat, man and other short words that could be sounded out. I began to comb over magazines making out what words I could. Little by little my ability to recognize words around me grew. I slowly became comfortable asking for help. I still work on confidence and belief in myself as a writer.

4. Today, though, you ARE a published writer – and a teacher, too. For the Forge Literary Magazine, you wrote a startlingly honest piece  about stealing from the Catholic Church as a deprived child, aged 11.  Is this part of a longer memoir?

A: Yes, Secret Robin Hood? is part of a memoir I began writing in 2014. At present I have eleven other pieces, some of which are published, in Foliate Oak and Forge Literary Magazine – with more to come.

5. How do you feel about being published. Has it helped with your confidence?

A: Oh yes, it has. I still suffer from self doubt – but not for much longer, hopefully!

6. What kind of school do you teach in?

A: I became a Montessori teacher and have worked with children of all ages for 35 years. I haven’t been involved in programs dealing specifically with illiteracy, but I do believe children learn when there is example, enthusiasm, safety, support, encouragement and acknowledgement. These important factors I bring to each child.

7. Returning to your teenage years, how did being illiterate affect your experience of everyday life?

A: I spent much of my young life numb, floating, hiding or fighting. I was very sensitive and intuitive yet my most prominent difficulty was the humiliation I felt among my peers as a complete failure. I was unable to hold a job that required reading or writing. By pure fortune I was given jobs in a dress shop, at the diner, as a nanny, by people I now consider angels.

 8. What were the main advantages you noticed, once you learned to read?

A: The first book I read cover to cover was Acupuncture, the Chinese Art of Healing.  I was twenty-one. It was life changing. It confirmed the existence of energy and the ill-effect imbalance could have on a person, thus I began to choose friends with better energy and to think about my own energy. Most of the books I read I chose based on what I wanted to learn. The world opened to me. I now had the chance to become the person I wanted to be. I found tools, guidance and direction in the books I read.

9. Were there any advantages in being illiterate?  Did you lose anything?

A: It’s hard to say what I gained or lost. I developed keen senses and observation skills, I’m a problem solver, I’m great with my hands, always making something … art. Sewing and macramé as a girl, silver and goldsmithery as an adult. Whatever I might have lost, I gained or am gaining back twofold through literacy.

10. What are the statistics on illiteracy in the USA today?  How does this compare to other countries around the world?

A: According to the US Department of Education, around 14% of adult Americans are illiterate. Obviously, this is a relatively low percentage compared to the 65% illiteracy rate in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is still far too high. Around two-thirds of the world’s 757 million illiterate adults are women, significantly.

11. What advice do you have for a person who wishes to rise above the illiteracy trap? (Obviously, those in this situation won’t be able to read this – but someone may be able to pass the information on.)

A: Advice isn’t something I would have taken. I don’t think advice is what helped me to survive and to overcome my situation. I wanted to become literate and kept at it, as I do to this day.

I would ask any person who has or is around kids to keep a close watch, notice changes in behavior and if a child seems troubled – look deeper. Kids don’t tell: the ramifications are too much to handle.

Thank you Aileen.

Combat Illiteracy

Aileen Godat

For more inspiring stories of overcoming illiteracy, see The site also contains suggestions about how to donate or become involved with worldwide literacy schemes. Connect with Valerie Waterhouse on Twitter: @val_in_italy

Are you an author or reader? Have questions for Aileen? Have you had any interaction with those struggling with illiteracy?  Tell us all about it in the comments!

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • mitchtoews says:

    Ms Godat wrote: “Girls didn’t need an education to change a diaper, wash a floor or clean a house.” A prevailing belief only a generation ago in rural Canada; extended also to boys destined for the farm or the mill too – but with variations. I suspect this idea — enough school, time to go to work — is still a force in most places on earth.

    Yes, most – wherever there is war, poverty, starvation.

    The cultural valuation of numeracy vs literacy is interesting too. But that’s another blogification. Thx for the interesting post!

    allfornow – Mitch

  • rationalraj2000 says:

    Nice inspiring story!

  • Indira says:

    So inspiring. Thanks for sharing it with us Damyanti.

  • abhiray59 says:

    It is surprising that your story happens in 1964. You were forced towards domesticity and domestic women do not need education. Around 1964, US was one of the superpowers. New York was one the prime centers of culture, art and education. Yet your story emerges.

  • Valerie Waterhouse says:

    Thank you for all the comments and feedback on Aileen’s interview. Keep it coming! If just one person is inspired to make a change and overcome a major challenge by Aileen’s story, I think both of us will be more than satisfied! Hope you have all enjoyed Aileen’s piece about stealing from the Catholic church at Forge Lit Mag too. It poses some interesting ethical/moral issues. (Link in answer to Q4 above for those who haven’t yet managed to read it.)

  • Awesome.

  • socialjblog says:

    Anecdotally, I experienced the whole not being able to read shampoo and conditioner labels, but that wasn’t in my native tongue. That was living in Asia. It drove me to want to know because it made me feel stupid.

    Taking that and just thinking about how painful not being able to read in your own language would be is not something to take light-heartedly. I feel greatly for her and for other children that are emotionally-malnourished: lacking positive-reinforcement as well as negative.

    Her perseverance and indomitable will are admirable on so many levels. I have great respect for what she’s done and for her choice to be a beacon of hope for other children, so that they know that nothing’s impossible as long as they don’t give up.

  • socialjblog says:

    I’d never know the pain of illiteracy in my home country, but on the anecdotal side, I’ve experienced it in Asia. Going day-to-day without being able to read a menu and yes many times not being able to read the words on the shampoo or conditioner bottle.

    But your story really says a lot more than just that. It talks about a woman that was type-caste into a system that she didn’t have any say in. She didn’t receive positive reinforcement, nor did she receive negative. She simply was asked to obey in becoming domesticated much like a under-nurtured house pet.

    It’s truly an amazing accomplishment that she made refusing to step into the mold predestined for her. I have so much respect for people like her that have rose up and become so much more and continue by standing as a beacon of hope to the desperate and the down-trodden.

  • randyjw says:

    Thank you. Many people struggle with this problem. This was a nice article.

  • Daal says:

    This is so inspiring, Aileen – thank you for writing it — & thanks Damyani for posting it 🙂

    • Valerie Waterhouse says:

      Hear hear! Thank you very much Damyanti for being such a open-minded & energetic hostess!

  • miralianna says:

    This is an amazing story of courage and perseverance. I am continually humbled, seeing how our greatest flaws reveal our strengths and perhaps our true purposes for living on this planet. Thank you! <3 – Mira

  • laurenb360 says:

    Very inspirational interview! It’s so sad to hear that there are so many out there that are illiterate, but one rising above the odds is always someone to give the younger generation hope!

  • J.R.Bee says:

    Wonderful post! To fight for literacy that much is so inspiring when so many kids at school don’t seem to care about education. I think Lillian has hit on a good point here too, when she doesn’t trust the system. I think a lot of kids don’t. Most of the kids that don’t care about education would probably thrive if they were taught differently, if someone could see their strengths.

  • Chez Shea says:

    What an interesting interview with this amazing woman.

  • cynthiamvoss says:

    What a story. Amazing how she turned her life around. Thanks for sharing.

  • cleemckenzie says:

    A heartwarming and fascinating story! When I was do the research to write Double Negative, I was shocked to read the statistics about the high illiteracy and low literacy rates just here in the U.S. I’d naively assumed our society had relatively high literacy.

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti – what an interesting post … fascinating to learn about Valerie’s interview of Aileen. I’ve no idea how I’d cope if I couldn’t read … learning to ask or ask for help is an essential in life – that was something I got to very late on …congratulations on your achievements – and now helping others … cheers Hilary

    • aileen godat says:

      Yes! Hilary, asking for help is so essential. Sadly, doing so is still seen as a sign of weakness, and is often laced with shame. I encourage everyone to offer help whenever possible. Thank you for your good comments.

  • msw blog says:

    This was a powerful inspiring read. I will be sharing it with my students and clients alike. I also think you may enjoy this post.

    • Valerie Waterhouse says:

      It’s great to know that Aileen’s story will be shared more widely — I hope your students and clients are inspired by her example. Thanks, too, for the interesting link.

  • Shantala says:

    This was an interesting and inspiring read. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • aj vosse says:

    It is scary to think how our lives can be affected so negatively by the inability to understand the combination of 26 individual characters on a piece of paper. How lucky we are to be able to read and write! Thanks for sharing! 😉

  • An interesting interview on how she turned her weakness into her biggest strength, drawing into American life in those days. A human story that deserves to be told.

  • Wonderful story and great example. The Montessori system should be better known and more widely used as it that rare thing – children-centred education.

  • Mary Kate Leahy says:

    Another piece to throw into the puzzle is the number of people who are “functionally illiterate” … like people who could read enough to tell conditioner from shampoo but don’t have the kind of literacy and comprehension skills that would be necessary to read a book of any difficulty. The percentage of people in that camp is probably very high.

  • pjlazos says:

    Wow, what a powerful story! I am always inspired by those who have overcome their own life situations, generally placed upon them by society’s various injustices or prejudices, with such grace. Aileen leads by example and we all are uplifted by her story. She is a great advocate for women everywhere — everyone, really, but especially women — about what we can do when we set our minds to it. The law of attraction is a powerful tool. And I read that same acupuncture book!

  • Claire says:

    What a fascinating story – and so inspirational. I went to a fairly small primary school (and had parents who were keen readers who passed that on to me), and never quite appreciated how privileged I was to take learning to read for granted. I am truly in awe of anyone who managed to teach themselves to read!

    • Valerie Waterhouse says:

      Aileen really is a force of nature. She took her destiny into her own hands and made it work for her!

      Can I use this opportunity to encourage you & anyone who enjoys Aileen’s interview to read her beautifully-written pieces at Forge Literary Magazine and Foliate Oak as well? We’d love to hear what you think of them! You can click straight through to both in the answer to Q4, above.

  • It is so refreshing to see people who are locked into social circumstances where a continuing cycle of poverty and suppression fight their way out of it and succeed. We need to hear more stories like these. Better still, we need to be facilitators helping these kind of people succeed.

  • Dan Antion says:

    this is an uplifting, albeit a little sad, story. It’s amazing what people can do.

  • Valerie Waterhouse says:

    So glad people are inspired by Aileen’s story — as indeed was I. As you say, Alex, it’s so easy to take literacy for granted and yet … as that informative graphic linked to by MSOC, points out — in some parts of the world it isn’t yet the norm. Thanks for telling us about Taylor Stevens, Jacqui: I’ll be sure to look her up.

    Do take a look at Aileen’s searingly honest memoir piece, Secret Robin Hood?, if any of you find a moment. It’s another inspiring read!

  • INSPIRING! I see others agree 🙂

  • That is indeed an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it.

  • An inspiring story and such dedication and drive is commendable. Lovely interview and great advice at the end. Congratulations on your many successes!

  • And I bet the whole world opened up to you once you learned to read. Those of us who learn young often take it for granted. And now you’re an author and a teacher. Bravo!
    Our state’s illiteracy rate is almost twice the national average and I used to work in a program helping adults learn to read. Many of them just wanted to be able to read their Bible.

  • What an amazing story. I am humbled by your ability to stand up for yourself and seek your goals despite expert opinions to the contrary. This story reminds me somewhat of Taylor Stevens, an amazing author (I’ve read everything she wrote) who had an unconventional childhood, one that would never predict she’d end up such an accomplished writing. In your case (and hers), writing should seem like a perfect career as it relies on voice more than anything else. and your internal voice–the one that helped you to get where you are–is strong and original.

    • aileen godat says:

      Jacqui, your words are inspiring to me, thank you so much for your recognition. I haven’t heard of Taylor Stevens, but will check her out. I love what you said about voice.

  • sconst71 says:

    What an inspiring story. I hope this helps more people to take the steps to learn to read. Great post!

  • GREAT post! I did a piece on world illiteracy recently and found that many countries do not report it – and some even seem to inflate their literacy rates. During my research for the piece (which was prompted by a Frederick Douglass quote I found) I discovered the UNESCO infographic on illiteracy found at this link:
    You and your readers (they probably outnumber mine by orders of magnitude) may find it of interest. Kind regards, MSOC