When a Nashville man named Robert was young, no one seemed to mind that he didn’t know how to read. But as he got older, his lack of literacy made challenges in life even more difficult.
Now, at age 55, he's finally learning to read with the help of the Nashville Adult Literacy Council.
Editor's note: We're not using Robert's last name because of the sensitive health information he disclosed.
Up until sixth grade, he said, teachers didn't even pay attention to his inability to read. Later, they would read tests out loud to him.
"That’s how I ended up making it through high school, but when I graduated I still couldn’t read and write," he said. "It always bothered me."
It was a problem that ran in the family, he said. "I found out a long time ago that my father couldn't read and write because when we went to the store, he couldn't even sign his own check. I didn't find out that my mom couldn't read until I was an adult."
He was able to secure a job after high school at a restaurant. But then, after getting tested for HIV, he got a devastating phone call from the health department on Christmas Eve: He had it.
Struggling With HIV
Robert couldn't read about the disease, so he assumed it was a death sentence.
"The only thing I [knew] about HIV and AIDS [was] what you saw on the TV, people wasting away and just dying," he said. "After that I just got hooked to crack cocaine. I tried my best to kill myself with crack cocaine.
"I lost everything that I worked for, everything that I loved — I lost it all."
About 15 years ago, something changed. He started going to a support group through Nashville CARES, an organization that provides resources to people with HIV. He learned that he could live with the disease.
That made him want to live again.
"So I went to treatment and I got 15 years clean, today," he says.
Coming Out To Mom
It was on a church retreat, before he got clean, where Robert met his partner.
One day, he says, they went together to visit his mother.
"She said, 'Rob, when you gonna give me a grandchild?' I said, 'Momma, you won’t get no grandchild from me, because that’s my mate right there.' She said, 'I thought it was!' She bust out laughing.
"I wouldn’t throw him away for nothing," he says. "He’ll take his shirt off his back and give it to me as I need it. I couldn’t throw him away for nothing."
Now, as a literacy student, Robert's reading level is equivalent to third graders'. His homework is to write for 20 minutes each night.
"I just make up things and write … something I have on my mind. You know, putting it on paper, it helps my mind release it. They always said it’s a 'poem,' or whatever they call it, but that’s just my homework."