I recently became aware of a man named John Corcoran. His story is quite amazing. He is an American author who read only at a second-grade level until the age of 48. He managed to graduate from high school and college, and to work as a high school teacher and real estate developer without being discovered. Not only did he work as a teacher, he taught high school English for 17 years in Oceanside, California.
That anyone could pull off such an amazing feat makes him or her an extraordinary human being as far as i’m concerned. I’m sure a lot of parents, after they found out their children’s English teacher was illiterate must have been outraged, but the fact is, he taught them, they learned, and they graduated. The sheer will and discipline that must have required is breathtaking.
John Corcoran was illiterate because he was dyslexic, but it was never diagnosed in school. He was one of six siblings, and his parents were too overwhelmed to notice the deficit. His teachers at school assigned him to the “dumb row” but were distracted by his disciplinary problems and soon forgot about his reading difficulties.
I remember this sort of thing happening when I was in grade school. There were those who had difficulty with reading, and dyslexia wasn’t understood back then. Those kids usually ended up in the “special” class with the retarded children. It makes me wonder what became of them.
Corcoran managed to graduate high school and then attend two junior colleges and then the University of Texas at El Paso. Thanks to an athletic scholarship and aggressive, continual cheating, he was able to graduate in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in education and business administration.
His first job out of university was, as I stated, as a high school teacher. His responsibilities included teaching English grammar. On his personal website, Corcoran describes some of the tricks he used to manage this.
“The students wrote their names on a seating chart and then pronounced them for me. To avoid reading the list, I asked them the next day to call out their names, claiming I wanted them to get to know one another. ”
I can understand that some would think of this man as a fraud, but there’s another side to this. A lot of people like John Corcoran end up living off of the rest of us. The live unremarkable lives, never accomplish anything, and live without imagination, giving nothing back to their communities and pretty much just being a drain on society.
To me, John Corcoran embodies the spirit of ingenuity. He went from being a troubled child who couldn’t understand what he was supposed to be learning, and thus a trouble maker, written off by the very people who had a responsibility to help him, to being a success in life to a degree that supposedly better men than him never achieve.
He taught for 17 years before becoming a real estate developer in 1977. He was successful for ten years, and when his business faltered, he resolved to finally learn how to read. After thirteen months of tutoring, he was literate at a 12th grade level.
At the age of 70 he wrote a book about his life: The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read. He has since become a spokesman for literacy programs, as well as running his own foundation to help people learn to read. He has appeared widely in the American media, including an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, National Public Radio’s Eye on Books, and interviews in USA Today and other publications.
So my hat is off to John Corcoran. Living proof that personal responsibility, determination and will can overcome any obstacle.