James Was Called “Illiterate”

(from Wilmington Star-News article “Journey to Literacy,” April 2008, written by Chris Mudarri)

James had a boss who called him “illiterate.” First he got mad…then he got help.

James J. Walton’s boss called him an illiterate idiot. Walton, who had been doing plumbing work for more than 27 years, knew more about the trade than most people he worked for. Yet he had been limited to the lowest job in the hierarchy because he could not read.

Two decades had passed since his last attempt to improve his reading, interrupted by the overwhelming child care responsibilities of a single father. As far back as the fourth grade, Walton remembered, he’d had a problem, but they just passed him up to the next grade, even when he had straight Fs.

He felt like hitting his boss with a shovel. Instead, Walton decided to try again. “You have to be able first to put pride aside,” he said, dark green copper-stained hands fingering his textbook. “Once you do, everything is possible.” Five years later, Walton earned his journeyman’s card. Now he works by himself and can supervise others, who, he said, he would not degrade in the way that boss did.

Walton and his tutor, Bill Dungan, meet twice a week and have for 9 years. Walton turned out to be Dungan’s first and only student. It’s a commitment and friendship and true partnership.

“One of my goals was to get my plumber’s license. I had to learn to read the code book before I could pass the test, which I did,” Walton said. It was a three-hour written exam. “It’s not in plain English, I might add.” Dungan said.

Walton continues to move toward his next goal, to get his General Educational Development (GED) credential, certifying equivalency of a high school education. Until he does, some doors are still closed to him.

Walton’s father is an example of how reading problems can change a life. A welder for more than 40 years, John S. Walton passed up a promotion to teach welding at the shipyard in Newport News, VA, mainly for that reason. “He quit and he came down here and went to work on construction. Just because he didn’t know how to read,” Walton said. His father died two weeks before he could see his son pass the journeyman’s test. “One thing I do regret a little bit is that I didn’t get a chance to pass my test and to show my dad my card before he passed away,” Walton said.