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Starting a New Chapter

“I suppose I did okay in kindergarten, but the rest of my formal education was pretty much a flop.”

So shares Alby Lee Lewis in Life with No Words, a candid memoir about growing up in poverty in Chicago, masking his illiteracy for decades, navigating adulthood as a non-reader, and returning to school at age 55 to learn to read through the Wilson Reading System®.

Al has shared his story on the Oprah Winfrey show, with Wilson® instructors, and with college students earning degrees in education. When a college professor suggested he write a book about his experiences, he said, “Why not?” and proceeded to do just that. With the assistance of his wife, Bonnie, who served as his editor, he completed the project this past fall.

“To not be able to read is one of the hardest things,” Al, now 76, recently said. “I thought my story could help others. Learning to read has made me stronger and more positive in everything I do.”

Although his story is his own, his situation is not unique. Approximately 32 million adults in the United States—14 percent of the population—cannot read, according to national literacy statistics.

In his book, Al credits his accomplishments to five special teachers: his mother, Marie; his wife of 53 years, Bonnie; their daughter, Dr. Jaclyn “Jackie” Murawska, assistant professor of mathematics at Saint Xavier University in Chicago; Renai Graham, his WRS teacher at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL; and Dr. Mary Beth Ressler, an assistant professor of education at North Central College in Naperville, IL.

“This account of Al’s life is a success story, but it is also a call to action for those who have experiences similar to Al’s, and to educators who have, or will have, students like Al in their classrooms,” Dr. Ressler writes in the book’s foreword.

Born on Christmas Day in 1940, Al had no true education or knowledge of his condition while growing up. Despite living in poverty, foster homes, and juvenile detention for running away from a foster home, he gained a sense of self-worth and a positive attitude by adhering to his mother’s advice to “get along with everybody and everything would be all right.”

Following kindergarten, Al was placed in an ungraded school through age 16, then attended a trade school to learn how to operate a lathe and other machines.

With the guidance and support of his mother and his wife, Al managed to keep his illiteracy a secret from everyone he knew, even his own daughter. After he had retired from his job as a precision grinder, he asked his daughter to read the instructions on a microwave dinner box when she was home for a visit during her sophomore year in college. When she asked him why he didn’t read them, Al disclosed his secret.

“Once he told me, the clues became obvious,” Jackie said. For instance, he never helped her with homework, never wrote out the checks to pay household bills, and typically asked for the special when ordering at restaurants.

Both Bonnie and Jackie tried to teach Al to read, to no avail. Then Jackie learned about an adult literacy program, which used the Wilson Reading System, at the College of DuPage. There, Al learned to read and overcame what was later diagnosed as dyslexia. Since then, he has served as a guest speaker at North Central College – where his daughter previously taught – and other venues.

“It wasn’t until after he had gained some traction and started to read that he decided to tell everyone – his siblings, his best friends, his family members – that he was learning to read. It was a load off his shoulders. He didn’t have to deflect and always make excuses,” Jackie said.

Earlier this spring, Saint Xavier University’s School of Education hosted a book signing attended by educators, students, and community members. The event also included a presentation on dyslexia, led by Dr. Meg Carroll, professor of education, and Dr. Tara Joyce, associate professor of education.

“More than writing a book,” Jackie shared, “I’m most proud of my father for making the first step and agreeing to go with me to a local adult literacy center to check it out.”

Pictured: Author Alby Lee Lewis with daughter Dr. Jaclyn Murawska during a book signing and dyslexia presentation at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. Life with No Words is available through the publisher at Lulu.com, or at Amazon.com.