Sammy King was 66 years old when he learned how to read. He was inspired after learning about Helen Keller and decided it was finally time to get the help he needed and become literate. This is King’s story:
“My daddy couldn’t read and write. He couldn’t even write his name, but he worked all his life and he raised me and done a good job. Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have no help. My momma got killed early so daddy taught me how to work, be honest, and survive.”
King was raised by his father. Despite not knowing how to read or write himself, King’s father wanted his son to complete school and obtain the education that he never had the chance to get. King, however, left school in the sixth grade. He didn’t think the teachers were really teaching him anything, and he believed they passed students to the next grade based on their age and not educational progress.
In 1968, when King was 18, he was drafted into the United States Army to fight in the Vietnam War. He was a devoted soldier in the army, but he didn’t always feel respected by everyone in his unit. It was no secret that King could not read, and for that, he was treated differently by most of his army brothers.
Ashamed by his inability to read, King approached his drill sergeant about earning an education. Unfortunately, that was not an option and his request was turned down.
“I asked them for help in the service and the drill sergeant looked at me and said ‘King, you’re going to Vietnam, you ain’t going to have time to learn how to read. You better learn how to stay alive.’ Thank God I learned how to stay alive, and I survived the war. Of course, the drill sergeant calls me out in front of 250 guys and embarrassed me in front of them, and I had to go back in the barracks and live with those people … it was pitiful.”
After serving in Vietnam, King’s low literacy skills presented new challenges. He suffered from PTSD, and his inability to read made finding adequate treatment nearly impossible. Challenges also surfaced after his father’s death when he took over the family business. Although his four decades of dedication to running the business were successful, he always needed the help of others to manage the finances and fill out essential forms.
A Time for Change
King met his wife Kathleen in 1998. At this point in his life, King believed it was meant to be that he wasn’t supposed to learn how to read. His wife however, was not going to let him give up.
“You might think your life is good. You’ve got your own business, you’re making money, and everything’s fine. But no,” she told him. “[Reading is] a completely different world.”
Kathleen went to Literacy Action of Central Arkansas where she learned how to teach literacy skills. After she acquired the necessary training, she tutored King for about a year. But after long hours of working every day, neither of them had the energy or motivation in the evenings to succeed with the tutoring sessions. It wasn’t until King retired that he decided to visit Literacy Action of Central Arkansas to learn how to read.
“It took three tries to get through that door because I was so nervous.”
Although the process was difficult and frustrating, King would spend several hours every week studying and practicing his reading skills. Since the beginning of his literacy journey, Literacy Action volunteer tutor Pratt Remmel has helped him gain his literacy skills.
Today, King reads at a sixth-grade reading level and has finally read his first book about Helen Keller. He also was finally able to do something he’s wanted to do each of their 19 years of marriage: King picked out Kathleen’s anniversary card and signed it himself.
“Thank God my wife came into the picture and I’m on the right track now.”
To learn more about King’s story, read The Fundamentals Of Adult Literacy In Arkansas: Part One.
An Interview with Sammy King