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Learning to Read After Decades Brings Joy

Joe Buford, 63, has a high school diploma but kept a secret, even from his family: He couldn't read.

"I could memorize things," he says. "I call it drawing the words .... Nobody in my family really knew how bad it was with me and how hurt I was over it."

Buford's wife didn't know about his reading problem until after they were married, he says.

"Some mail came one day and normally, she's telling me what came and what [bills] needed to be paid. But this time, she gave it to me and said, 'Here, read this.' And so she found out that I couldn't just read something from top to bottom. That tore my heart out."

He worked in a construction equipment repair shop and was offered a desk job. "I'd have to read books to look up parts and part numbers," Buford says. He knew he couldn't do it.

"I would lay awake at night trying to figure out, how can I tell them I didn't want the job." He told his employers he was "satisfied" with what he was doing.

Before Buford had children, he worried that "what was wrong with me would be passed on to my kids." He was afraid they wouldn't learn to read. "It just broke my heart," he says.

He was terrified of the prospect of having to read to his young daughters.

"So one day, I asked both of them could they read? And they said, 'Yes. We can't remember when we couldn't.' That just made me feel so happy that what was wrong with me ... I didn't pass it on to them."

After his children were married, Buford decided he would try to learn how to read. He turned to the Nashville Adult Literacy Center, where he worked with volunteer Michelle Miller.

When Buford realized he could learn to read, he was so excited.

"I jumped up and ran through the house. It made me cry and I'm thinking, 'Wow, it really is sinking in.'"

Produced for Morning Edition by Lizzie Jacobs. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.