From Illiterate to Poet and Author
Imagine… advancing through school hiding the fact that you don’t know how to read. Here's the inspiring story of Earl Mills, who read his first book at age 48, published two books of his own, and has a passion to support literacy in eastern North Carolina.
“...My heart has been enriched, my heart held at bay
When we’re together, in that special way
Help me to hear what your heart has to say
Not being selfish, wanting my way...”
He graduated from high school barely knowing how to read, but in his mid-40’s decided he would attempt one more time to learn to read. Today, we hear the inspiring story of Earl Mills. Since reading his first book at 48 years old, he has read 80 books and published two of his own as an advocate for adult literacy.
Earl Mills was born in eastern North Carolina into a large, sharecropper family. He had ten sisters and three brothers. Out of the fourteen children, only about half of them graduated from high school, including Earl.
“My father could not read. He dropped out in the seventh grade to help support the family, my mother could read and write well, she completed the 11th grade.”
School was a struggle for Earl. He was held back in the third grade because the teacher noticed he was having difficulty reading. All throughout his schooling, Earl did his best to mask his shortcoming.
“You would rather act out and be sent to the principal’s office rather than to go up in front of the class and for your secret and the shame of being embarrassed in front of your peers.”
Earl would often receive help with schoolwork from his mother and older siblings. Despite his illiteracy, he always had a way with words.
“...The un-oiled hinge squeaks
echoing thru a silhouette of light
from mothers shadow
cast upon her children’s faces
just another day like all the rest
she leaves to toil for others
leaving her own to fend for themselves….”
“The first thing I remember writing was in the seventh grade. The teacher asked the class to write a poem or a story and being from the country, the idea of squirrels came to mind. So I wrote a poem about squirrels and my teacher thought I had gotten the poem out of a book.”
In High School, after being warned he was in danger of flunking senior English, Earl says he worked hard and eventually graduated from Jasper High School in New Bern in 1971.
“To the day, I can’t figure out why I kept going knowing that I couldn’t read.”
After high school, Earl worked a variety of jobs in eastern North Carolina including brick masonry, railroad construction and boat building at Hatteras yachts. He was successful in his endeavors and offered many promotions. But was unable to accept them because he couldn’t read or write.
“Joined a local church and going through a 14-week discipleship class with 8 or 10 people in the class including my wife. I would always pretend that I couldn’t find the scriptures.”
One evening, the Pastor not knowing Earl couldn’t read called on him to share a verse. He says flashbacks of his childhood came rushing back.
“Fear gripped my heart, my wife sitting beside me trying to whisper the words in my ear. I was embarrassed. There was a young lady in church that knew about Craven Literacy Council.”
At age 45, Earl sought help at the Craven Literacy Council where he was assessed at a second grade reading level. He was assigned a tutor that began teaching him basic reading and writing skills.
“When you can’t read, you keep that secret under lock and key. And now, a man of 45 years old sitting across the desk, letting someone into a deeper part of that, that you’ve kept under lock and key… it was really embarrassing.”
After two and a half years, Earl was still struggling and his tutor ended up moving away.
“At this time, I purposed in my heart that this isn’t working. I’m going to give it up. And Craven Literacy Council assigned me a second tutor, Mr. Alfred Seamster. He would call, and call the house, and call the house and I would listen to the message on the machine but I wouldn’t pick up. And I said he’s not going to quit calling so one day I picked the phone up and he didn’t say hello or anything he just said are you going to do this or not.”
Earl met with this new tutor once a week for an hour- and studied on his own to sharpen his literary skills. Six months under Seamster’s tutelage, he was given a 121 page book called “Along the Gold Rush Trails.”
“And when he handed me the book, he could tell I was hesitant. He said try to read half the book. So I took the book home that Thursday night in my recliner and I opened the book and I read the first word, the first line, the first paragraph, the first page… all of that hard work all of those phonics began to click and at the age of 48, I read my first book.”
Reading his first book gave Earl the confidence to read other books and to begin writing his own poetry.
“It has just opened up worlds that you wouldn’t believe. I couldn’t leave that note on the refrigerator letting someone know that I had to go somewhere. I could write a love letter to my wife.. imagine that. A lot of the weight that was on my shoulders for all of those years finally lifted.”
Earl was recently assessed at Craven Literacy Council with a 10th grade reading level, but he strives to challenge himself with more advanced literature. He has read classics including “To Kill a Mockingbird, the Diary of Anne Frank, and “A Lesson Before Dying.” One of his favorites is “A Teacher Who Could Not Read” by John Cochran.
“He graduated high school, college, and taught English for 17 years and then built a multi-million dollar business and could not read and then walked into a literacy council at age 48 because he could not read a children’s book to his daughter.”
Earl is all too familiar with the shame and embarrassment of being illiterate. Now, he wants to inspire others to learn how to read and write. In 2011, He published his first book, “From Illiterate to Poet” and about a year later a second book titled “From Illiterate to Author.” His books include poems and short stories about literacy, his devotion to his wife, and even the poem about squirrels from seventh grade.
“some of my poems I wrote took twelve minutes, some in days, some took months.”
The poem “Backdoor,” took Mills three years to write because he wanted to communicate the segregation of our country during the early part of the 20th century without being offensive. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:
“...The back door was so hard to open
For it held the belittlement of my kind
It shackled our will, our souls and our minds
The back door was designed, engineered and put in place,
Its purpose was to dishonor, belittle and disgrace,
So that we would never forget our place….”
If you or someone you know needs help with literacy skills, contact your local literacy council. If you would like to volunteer to teach people how to read, there’s a new tutor training workshop being held March 12 thru the 26th at the Craven Literacy Council in New Bern. You can find more information at publicradioeast.org, under the events tab. Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.