A Teacher for 17 Years, But He Couldn’t Read or Write

He developed a complex array of tactics to get through college as an illiterate young man.
Andrew Thomas August 31, 2018

Knowing how to read and write are crucial skills for being able to function and succeed in any society. However, this man was able to graduate from college and even become a teacher without knowing how to do either.

As the son of a United Service Organizations director during World War II, John Corcoran grew up moving around the southwestern United States.

Corcoran and his family eventually settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s when he began attending school at age 6.

His parents told him he was a winner when he was growing up as a kid.

However, he was placed in what he referred to as “the dumb row” at school.

That’s when Corcoran first realized he was being treated differently because he was having trouble learning to read and write. He didn’t understand how or why.

“The teacher didn’t call it the dumb row, but we knew where we were,” Corcoran explained to Humanity.

It was in the fourth grade when he began feeling left behind.

Corcoran as a child. (Courtesy of Bradley Mertes)

By the time Corcoran got to the fifth grade, he still hadn’t made much progress and felt hopeless.

“I had really kind of given up on myself, the system, the teacher, and thinking something’s wrong with me,” Corcoran remembered.

In sixth and seventh grade, he began acting out and developing behavioral problems. He moved to three different schools in seventh grade.

Nevertheless, Corcoran was able to make it through school. He was a charismatic, athletic, social kid, and he was able to get girls to do his homework and write his papers for him.

After Corcoran graduated from high school, he developed a more complex array of tactics to get through college as an illiterate young man.

Corcoran would often cheat on exams or look at other students’ answers while taking a test.

He also discovered a test bank with old exams that he would use to pass his classes. However, there were two events where Corcoran would go to great lengths to cheat his way through college.

Corcoran and his college basketball team. (Courtesy of Bradley Mertes)

There was one exam that he didn’t have a copy of, and he needed to get his hands on it if he wanted to pass one of his classes.

He snuck into his professor’s office, but couldn’t find the exam. He figured it was in the file cabinet, which was locked.

One night he broke into his professor’s office and stole the entire file cabinet. He and three friends loaded it into a truck.

Corcoran was able to convince a locksmith to open the file cabinet for him by pretending he was a young business man who needed an important file for a meeting the next day. Once it was unlocked, he found the exam.

He and his friends returned the file cabinet to the office just as the sun was coming up. He had succeeded, but he was ashamed of his actions.

“That was horrible. That was when I crossed the line from just being a college cheater in school to a catburglar. I mean that was criminal,” Corcoran remembered.

The second instance was almost equally as daring.

For a government exam, there was no test to steal. The professor wrote the questions on the board, and the students were expected to write an in-class essay.

(Courtesy of Bradley Mertes)

Corcoran sat in the back of the classroom and passed his blue book through the window to a friend who had taken the same class before.

Corcoran sat there, pretending to write in another book, and waited while his friend answered the questions outside.

“I was sweating bullets and praying,” Corcoran said.

Not only was Corcoran worried about getting caught, he didn’t know if his friend would be able to answer the questions.

However, his friend slipped the completed exam back through the classroom window. Corcoran had passed yet again.

Corcoran managed to graduate from college in 1961, but that wouldn’t be the end of hiding his illiteracy.

He was offered three different teaching positions, and became a social studies teacher in El Paso.

In fact, his father, also a teacher, had filled out the applications.

At the time there was a national shortage of teachers, and a college degree was enough to get a job offer teaching.

“It was crazy what I was doing in retrospect,” Corcoran explained.

However, Corcoran had gotten pretty good at beating the system.

“It’s kind of like those guys that are locked up in prison. They do all kinds of extraordinary things because they’re watching the guards all the time,” Corcoran analogized.

Corcoran learned how to teach without knowing how to read or write by listening, watching, and participating.

(Courtesy of Bradley Mertes)

He created an environment that worked for him to compensate for his illiteracy.

He arranged the desks in a circle, and made most of his classes discussion based. He also invited guest speakers to lecture for him, and then the class would discuss the lecture the following day.

As a teacher, Corcoran had a lot of authority and could get students to do a lot of work for him without revealing his secret.

“At first I was frightened. You’re just getting dropped off in a war zone, and you just got out of basic training so you’re dumbfounded,” Corcoran remembered feeling as a teacher.

Corcoran taught for 17 years. While he was teaching, he had been investing in real estate. In 1978, not only was he able to quit his teaching job, he had tolerated enough anxiety and guilt.

“I had a moral dilemma. It physically made me sick sometimes that I was professing truth, seeking truth, and I was lying,” Corcoran said.

He thought about all the lives he had potentially ruined because he had been a teacher who couldn’t read.

(Courtesy of Bradley Mertes)

There were countless situations where Corcoran’s illiteracy would begin to affect his relationships with people.

There was one instance where he ran into a former student who was working in the city’s planning department.

Corcoran had to make some minor changes on a set of real estate plans. The student asked him to fill out a form, and Corcoran was stuck. He couldn’t fill it out because he didn’t know how to write.

He attempted to coax the student into filling it out for him, but it was a simple form and the student refused to do it. His former student got upset with Corcoran.

“I had a sick feeling when I left. First of all, I had a confrontation with somebody who I really liked and admired,” he said.

The only person who ever knew about Corcoran’s illiteracy was his wife, who he had told before they had gotten married.

By now, Corcoran was more than 40 years old and didn’t think he could ever learn how to read and write.

However, he had a lifelong desire to master reading and writing. At the time, Barbara Bush was discussing adult literacy publicly.

Corcoran with Barbara Bush. (Courtesy of Bradley Mertes)

“Every time I saw her on the news I would pay attention to her, and I would say that was something that kind of woke me up,” Corcoran recalled. Bush’s advocacy for adult literacy began to push him to try to learn how to read and write.

One day in 1986 Corcoran was in the grocery store and heard two women talking about their adult brother learning how to read at the local library.

The library was right across the street. Ten days later, Corcoran decided to give reading one more shot.

“The first experience was just going through the drama of telling another person,” Corcoran remembered when he told the literacy program director his deepest secret.

It was a slow, painstaking process, but Corcoran was able to read at a sixth grade level after a while. Then Corcoran went to a reading clinic.

He found out that he suffered from severe auditory discrimination, meaning he could only process 10 of the 44 phonetic sounds in the English language.

However, after 125 hours of learning at the clinic and seven years later, Corcoran could read at the 12th grade level.

“One day I just said, ‘Hey I can read! I spent 48 years thinking there was something wrong with my brain,” Corcoran explained. “I was ready to admit or to feel like I’m normal.”

Corcoran had become personally aware of how important literacy is for both children and adults. And he finally had the courage to start telling his story.

“I was sensing this story was going to amount to something,” Corcoran remembered. “But it wasn’t going to be enough for me to tell the story. I was going to have to be involved in the solution.”

That’s why Corcoran started the John Corcoran Foundation in 1997 in an effort to help other adults and children learn how to read and write. To date he has helped thousands of children avoid having to go through what he did.

“I want [my story] to open other people’s minds, hearts, and make a difference.”