By Madison Monroe
Sammy King was born on a hot summer day in England, Arkansas. When he was very young his mother was tragically killed in a car accident, leaving Sammy and his father to make it on their own. As a single parent in the early 1950’s, Sammy’s father did the best he could. Sammy had a roof over his head, clothes to wear and food to eat. Even though his father could not read or write (or perhaps because of it), he insisted Sammy attend school every day. Unable to help Sammy with his homework, his Dad was unaware that Sammy was not learning. Elementary school report cards were filled with ‘F’s. Although he failed every grade, Sammy was passed up to the next grade because of his size. Ironically, the only ‘A’ he ever earned was in penmanship. He was able to copy letters even though he could not read them.
Boredom in school gave way to misbehavior. Everyday Sammy fought with classmates. In sixth grade, he’d had enough. In the middle of a school day, he stood up, walked out of class and headed home. As he entered the house, he announced he had quit school. His father promptly loaded him up and took him back to class. Sammy beat his father back home! “I’m not going back,” he said. “They are not teaching me anything.”
Having been failed by the same educational system, his father understood. So Sammy began working side by side with his father. Over the years, his father taught him the tools of his trade. He taught him how to treat people, how to work for an honest day’s pay, how to be a man. From the age of 14 to 18, Sammy worked on a farm irrigation rig for five dollars per day.
By the time Sammy turned 18, the United States was at war in Vietnam and the draft had been reinstated. When Sammy received his draft notice, he had hope that the Army could teach him to read and write. When he voiced his interest in learning, his Drill Sergeant barked, “Don’t worry about how to read and write. You better learn how to stay alive.” The only thing Sammy knew how to write was his name. As he signed the Army papers, he began his 12 month tour-of-duty. He became friends with several soldiers in his unit, but upon realizing he could not read, one by one they quit talking to him.
After serving 12 months, he signed up for another six months.* Between these deployments, he was given a 30 day leave. During this time, Sammy developed a cough. He was sent to Oakland, California where he was scheduled to ship out. There his illness worsened. He was advised to go on sick call as soon as he got to Vietnam. By that time, he was spitting up blood.
The Army transported him to a hospital in Tokyo, Japan where he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. He asked to go home. The doctors told him that not only was he not going back to the United States, he most likely would never leave that hospital. Sammy understood it as a death sentence. The doctors began a last ditch effort to fight the Tuberculosis and in 14 days Sammy proved them wrong. He improved enough to be moved to the TB ward at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, Colorado. Hospitalized for the next year, Sammy recalls, “I couldn’t read or write, so I couldn’t fill out my chow card. I was embarrassed to ask for help, so I ended up eating Jello a lot.”
When he was released from the hospital with instructions to take his 22 pills a day, he was diagnosed disabled due to lung damage. His life expectancy was seven to eight years.
Finding it hard to sit around all day at the age of 22, Sammy began helping his Dad roof houses. When the VA found out, they cut his disability benefits. This forced Sammy to start his own business. Because he could not read or write, his business was conducted with handshakes and promises. He began a long relationship with a first grade teacher. During their sixth year of dating, Sammy finally worked up the courage to ask her to teach him to read and write. “No,” she replied. “If I teach you how, you will leave me.” He promptly did just that.
Eventually Sammy met Kathleen. It was love at first sight. They married after dating only nine months. Kathleen enrolled in a six month course at the library to learn how to teach an adult how to read. During this time she landed a job at Oxford American, a prestigious literary magazine. Her work required night and weekend hours, which cut into her teaching time.
At 58 years old, Sammy decided to take matters into his own hands. He drove to Literacy Action, walked in and asked for help. For years he had experienced rejection and humiliation, so he braced himself for the usual judgment. He recalls being so afraid he was almost hyperventilating. “When people find out you can’t read, they look at you differently. You’re not the man they thought you were,” he says. Literacy Action informed him that over 40,000 people in Little Rock cannot read or write. They tested him and assigned him a tutor. Not knowing how this would work out, Sammy kept his lessons a secret.
His 18th wedding anniversary proved to be a milestone. It was the first time he was able to select an anniversary card. He jokes, “I never understood why picking a card took so long until then. I would pick up one and it would say such nice things. But then the next one was even better. I stood there reading every one until I finally made a decision. It was the first time I could read them.”
Now Sammy represents Literacy Action by telling his story. He has given speeches at the Governor’s Mansion, radio talk shows and Literacy Action meetings. In his message he says, “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me ‘cause this is how I lived my life. I want people to help other people and not look at them differently because they can’t read. Give them a chance. They are people, same as you. I got tired of hiding it, of keeping it a secret. I have found the very shell you use to protect yourself is the one that binds you. When you have courage to face the thing that makes you want to hide, you weaken that shell of shame.”
Sammy King’s goal is to encourage those who cannot read to summon the courage to walk into Literacy Action and ask for help. Underscoring the emotional toil it takes, Sammy likens it to when he dug his own father’s grave by hand.”It’s hard, let me tell you. I opened and closed the grave by myself on my daddy and asking for help was harder than that,” he said.
King now reads at a sixth grade level and his favorite book is one about Helen Keller. He took that book to the cemetery, stood over his father’s grave and read it aloud. When he finished, he closed the book, looked down and said, “Daddy, we finally got here.”
Editor’s Note: If you have a loved one that struggles with illiteracy or if you would like to volunteer as a tutor, visit Literacy Action of Central Arkansas at literacylittlerock.org.
*If you would like to learn more about the Army draft policy mentioned in the story, visit our website at: