Human interest stories that run the gamut land on reporters’ laps every day. While many are compelling, few are as inspiring and moving as this one. It serves as a lesson in what can happen when dogged perseverance is combined with the inner struggle to do what’s right.
It all started with a well-kept secret. Johnnie Coley, 59, a hard-working and driven social worker, was burdened for decades with a secret of illiteracy. Although she had earned a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and a Masters in Human Services Management, Coley couldn’t read past a 4th-grade reading level.
Despite her advanced education and 35-year career, Coley’s tightly held secret brought her a private sense of shame. Through her years of schooling, she had learned to “fake-read,” and the thought of being discovered or continuing the lie was unbearable.
Fast forward to last week and after four challenging years of determination, Coley graduated from the Adult Literacy Program at W.T. Bland Library in Mount Dora with a 12th grade reading level. Coley's employer of 17 years, Mount Dora Children’s Home, generously allowed her time off from work to pursue her dream of literacy.
Mount Dora Buzz posed questions to Coley, a Eustis resident, and her honest answers were so moving, it was important to include them in their entirety so readers could understand her journey and be inspired by her bravery and perseverance first-hand. MOUNT DORA BUZZ : You made it this far without reading; why did you decide to learn to read now? COLEY: Fifty-five years old, living as a Christian and faking reading is lying. My greatest desire was to live an honest and pure life. I lived a lie every day, especially on my job and in other places. No one knew but my best friend and my boss. BUZZ: What was the hardest part about learning to read as an adult? COLEY: The uncovering of the truth about me. To admit I could not read well was shameful. I felt so guilty and it was very painful. I cried a lot because of it. I was not a legitimate professional. The vowel sounds were hard; comprehending, reading out loud without shaking and the parts of speech were the most challenging. BUZZ: What have you discovered is the most rewarding part of knowing how to read? COLEY: I learned so many things through reading that I did not know. It opened up a whole new world to me. It is a huge reward to have terminated the fake reading. Now when my eye goes to the words on paper, I no longer freeze. I understand what I am reading while I am reading it. (I have memorized a lot of things, scripture included and I would always look down and look up as if I were reading, but the truth is I was not.) I went from 4th grade to 12th grade with my tutor. That was incredibly amazing. It was not easy, but I got through it with help from the literacy program at the library. THE BUZZ: How did you get through college without the ability to read? COLEY: I got students and teachers to help me very often. I hustled and never gave up trying. I read very slowly and looked up words as I studied. What it would take a person one hour to do, it took me three hours. I kept trying. When I failed, and I did, I tried again. My mom, who was single, had eight kids and none of them had a degree. But I got mine. My mother did not have her high school diploma, but in her older years, she went back and got it. I also cheated at times off of other students' papers when I was in college, too. I hate to admit that. THE BUZZ: Tell me how you feel about your tutor? COLEY: I love my incredible tutor, Lisa Dunklin. For four years she stuck with me. Many times I was crying and angry because I couldn’t read something, but she was so patient with me. Even that 4th-grade work was hard. She encourages me every week beyond normal tutoring hours. I had surgery two times and she came to my friend’s house and tutored me. I got COVID and she was still sending me things to read. I did not know vowel sounds or parts of speech. She taught me that and so much more. I will remember her for the rest of my life. She never gave up on me even in those frustrating moments.
Lake County’s free literacy program was established over 20 years ago to provide assistance to adults who need help with any form of literacy. Many of the adults speak English as a second language and want to improve their English or to get assistance with Citizenship, but there are also low-literacy learners who want to improve their reading or math levels, and others who seek assistance passing the GED.
Adults that need a tutor can contact their local Lake County Library to turn in an application to be matched with one of the 75 tutors working in the program. Anyone interested in being a tutor can request more information here.
“Reading has been my greatest struggle, but I still went after my dreams. For example, I am a published author. I had a lawn business for a year, I wrote music, I have done public speaking, I created a parenting workshop,” added Coley. “All of these endeavors happened because I have always strived to do something important and helpful to others. God helps me with all of it and I am better now that I no longer have to fake-read at work. I feel like a smart person now!"
For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, click here. For local things to do, click here and for the area's free mobile app, click here.