True Story: My Grandfather was illiterate and now I write for a living

How does illiteracy affect someone? How does it affect their career, their family, and their children's futures? Click through for your daily weep and one woman's story >> yesandyes.org
Did you know that 14% of Americans are illiterate? And 21% of Americans read below a fifth grade level? Today, Rachel is sharing the story of her grandfather’s illiteracy, how it affected his life and how it affected her own education and career path. Really important and interesting!

Tell us a bit about yourself!

Hi, I’m Rachel Kurzyp. I’m a writer and communications consultant focusing on human rights, digital inclusion, and being true to yourself. I’m currently based in Melbourne, Australia but I move around a lot. Recently, I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and Bangladesh.

At 17 I became homeless and since then I’ve been working hard to build the life I want – I avoid the 9-5 office model of working, I travel for two-three months of the year, and I help people and small brands share who they are, what they do, and attract their ideal clients on the internet (In my PJ’s while I sip tea, of course).

What was your grandpa like? 

My grandpa, Alfred, passed away when I was around eight years old so my memories of him are limited. I do remember him playing with us kids despite being quite unwell due to smoking.

Grandpa was in the Army during the Second World War and was stationed in Darwin, Australia. He did a lot of odd jobs that didn’t require reading, like building roads, painting, and various cleaning jobs. Back then you didn’t have to complete a driver’s test to get your license and no one asked for your high school certificate.

Despite having a limited education, Grandpa was a very practically minded guy. He was great with his hands and built things from scratch. He even built another room and storage area onto the family home so he’d have somewhere to escape five kids and listen to his footy on radio! – he was a massive Australian Football League (AFL) fan.

How did your grandma find out he was illiterate? 

I only found out that my grandpa was illiterate after my nan passed away in 2011. It was a big family secret. I’m told she found out on her wedding day. She might have known earlier and just ignored it, though.

Grandpa used to get other people to write on the cards and letters he’d send her. He could sign his name but that was about it; he couldn’t even read street signs. When he worked for the council he would drive to the location the night before so he could remember the way without having to stop and ask for directions. This used to cause him a lot of stress.

Do you know why he never learned to read?

Grandpa’s family was extremely poor and there was never enough food to go around. He was the eldest and was expected to work to feed the family. That was what you did back then, especially after the war and The Great Depression. Times were tough and Grandpa started doing odd jobs when he was eight years old.

Grandpa’s father was also an alcoholic, who died at 42, and his mum, I’ve been told, didn’t care for him or his siblings. Nan always said grandpa wasn’t ‘brought up’ he was ‘dragged up.’ I never knew if Grandpa wished he’d had an education but I do know not going to school affected his self-confidence, self-esteem, and his social skills.

Even after he got married and started his own family he was still responsible for taking care of others so was never given the chance to study. Education wasn’t seen as important back then.

As far as you know, how did his illiteracy affect his day-to-day life?

At first, it wasn’t that bad because he could get work without needing to be literate. But the rules and regulations changed and you needed a license to work with machinery or drive a car, so you needed be able to read. Things got much tougher for him as he got older. He ended up working as a cleaner because it was the only job that didn’t require reading.

During the 1960s, he had a breakdown and wouldn’t get out of bed for months. After his breakdown, everything changed. He became dependent on my nan (who could read and write) to do everything for him. He wouldn’t even go into a store to buy his tobacco. In the end, being illiterate isolated him from society, which affected his ability to participate, and his self-worth when downhill pretty dramatically from there. I imagine this had a large impact on their relationship and my Nan’s happiness.

How did his illiteracy affect the way your grandparents raised your mum and how they talked to you about education?

My nan attended school until the end of Grade 6, which was as far as most kids went back then. Only one girl and one boy with the best academic grades were picked to go onto high school, which is crazy when you compare it to now. Both my grandparents were eldest children so they were told to focus on getting a job and providing for their families.

By the time I was born, my family had begun to realise education was necessary if you wanted to get out of poverty. I remember my nan telling me, ‘boys will wait, get an education first.’ She used to tell me this every time we spoke and ask me to repeat it back to her (now I know my family secret I wonder if she was referring to her own situation?).

She was very supportive of my education. She’d send me cards wishing me good luck for my exams and even crocheted me a blanket to keep my legs warm while I study – I still have it now and it sits on the back of my chair.

These days, you’re a full-time writer. How did your grandparents feel about your career?

Unfortunately, my grandpa never got to see me become a published writer or complete my university degree – I’m the first person in my family to go to university and I now also have a master’s degree.

My nan, however, was really proud of me. I think she felt like she had made things right and could let go of the guilt for not helping her own kids get an education. A few days before she passed away, she called me to say she knew I was going to make it as a writer, and I had exceeded all her expectations. It was her love and support that got me to where I am today.

How does this family history affect the way you feel about your own work?

I see firsthand how important education is. In just two generations, everything for my family changed. Education opened up doors for me that my grandparents and parents only dreamed about, like travelling and running my own business.

I can’t believe now I help not-for-profit organisations around the world write content for their clients, most of whom are illiterate, disabled or disadvantaged in some way. It’s a little ironic how things turned out, but my work gives me purpose.

What can we do to combat illiteracy?

Illiteracy is such an important issue. Most people don’t realise how bad literacy rates are. Some 757 million adults globally are illiterate.

There are many things that contribute to low literacy such as digital exclusion, poverty, gender inequality, disability, war and conflict, and environmental disasters. Education is the best kick-start to life and without it, people fall behind socially and economically. It really is a global issue and one we all should be hassling our politicians to do something about.

But on a day-to-day basis take the time to look around and ask yourself ‘who’s missing from the conversation?’ and ‘how can we explain ourselves more simply through images, videos and face-to-face services?’

It’s hard for us who are literate to image a world where we couldn’t go into a bank and get a credit card, or book flights online or even read cooking directions on a pasta packet. But this is what it was like for my grandfather and for millions of others right now. It’s a shocking reality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to change it.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Rachel! If any of you guys have encountered illiteracy and have tips or suggestions to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

P.S. One of my favorite interviews – True Story: I went back to university at 51

4 Comments

Dalindcy

I honestly had no idea there were so many illiterate people in the world. What a sad but inspiring story at the same time. Being able to read is something I have taken for granted at times, I now realize. Thank you for sharing this story!

Reply
Sarah M

Do you think your grandfather could have been dyslexic? It surely wouldn’t have been recognized in his day, and being able to create and make is a marker (!), as most dyslexic people are highly creative and able to do well visually (common dyslexic jobs are entrepreneurs, athletes, engineers, artists, musicians). It’s genetic, so if there’s anyone who even modestly struggles with reading, spelling, or handwriting within your family, that might have been the case and it’s often overlooked.

Reply
Rachel Kurzyp

Hey Sarah

Thanks for reading my grandpa’s story!

I don’t believe he was dyslexic and there’s not a history of it in my family as far as I’m aware – although there is a possibility.

I think it was more likely that he found ways to make up for being illiterate. From the stories I’ve been told he spent a lot of time remembering things and watching how things were done so he could pretend he had the qualifications others had.

And working on all those odd jobs from a young age probably paid off giving him random but super useful life skills like building!

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stellab

What a touching interview and story. Your concerns about reaching those who are illiterate is especially helpful since you seem to have it grounded in practical solutions.

My Grandmother was illiterate. One reason she didn’t get educate was racism in the school (back in the 1870’s, believe it or not). Eventually she married my Grandfather and he got into farming. That gave them the way to provide for a big family, but of course, my Grandmother really had little if no time for education. She was, though and excellent cook and baker. I could imagine her now with her own cooking show. I know her of course as my confidant (though she died when I was quite young).

In one aspect my story mirrors yours, our family came to really believe in education. My Mom became a teacher. My Dad finished high school (but racism again was a discourager for him going to college(1920’s). He became a skilled brick mason and did well. He also strongly supported education. Both my parents absolutely encouraged me, wanted me to go to college and be professional.

I eventually became a math professor at my community college. And I love writing poetry, as did Mom (and she said Grandfather also wrote poetry though I’ve never seen any of his poems).

Yes, education can mean so much. And it’s something we should never take for granted.

Reply

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