I would venture to guess that when people read about the illiteracy rate in America, most people don’t think they actually know a grown adult who can’t read. Then again with the emphasis on video these days, combined with my own love of reading, perhaps reading and writing are losing their importance. I just assume people can read. Don’t you?
One summer break from college, I worked with a roofing crew. Just my good sociology luck, I ended up with a foreman who couldn’t read. But I must ad that none of us knew this was the case. None of us workers was the wiser; the foreman hid it very well. I didn’t say the foreman was dumb. Oh no, this guy was clever as hell.
About a month after I worked with this crew, the foreman’s illiteracy would become very obvious; but only after I was clued in by a third party. And I kept my trap shut about it after I confirmed it was true. If anything, I figured I would “help” him with his act. We never talked about it, but once I knew, I would honor the secret he had been so careful to hide.
Most of us assume that a grown man 55 years old would be able to read; especially if he is in “management.” Yet, despite this man’s inability to read, he was a smart individual. After all, he had to craft and act out a “front” that hid the fact. That in itself is impressive.
Not only did the foreman not know how to read, but he was able to conceal this fact for most of his life; reading and concealing may be related, but they are separate phenomenon that required two different skill sets. This guy was clever at not only hiding the fact that he couldn’t read, but he had been able to survive a long time as an illiterate functioning adult. This fact was amazing to my sociological brain. Hey, I’m NOT judging, I don’t think I could do it.
After I began working on that crew, a third-party inadvertently clued me in that the foreman couldn’t read. It was incredulous – not to mention that the person who told me had total credibility with me. One afternoon I ran an errand to retrieve something from his house. While waiting for his wife to take a phone call, I noticed a Hooked on Phonics set on the table near where I was standing. That certainly grabbed my attention. After all, this couple’s kids were all grown adults. So who was this set for?
After the foreman’s wife got off the phone, I politely inquired and she said in a calm voice, “Oh that’s for XXXX, he can’t read.” She said it like everyone already knew and moved on without skipping a beat. That fact blind-sided me. It really did. That sure was news to me. In my shock and awe, I let it go. I had to mull it over for awhile. Luckily my shock kept me from opening my bog mouth.
What surprised me was that I hung out with the foreman for eight hours a day, five days a week, for one full month and I seriously had no idea that he could not read. I have to admit, after I was informed of the fact, I was on a sociology quest to find out how he survived modern society without the ability to read.
There were a couple of issues I had to contend with. One, I had to proceed cautiously; after all, I didn’t want to embarrass him. Two, I wanted to observe how this guy survived without being able to read. I had to pay attention during our interaction at places that required some sort of reading (e.g. a restaurant). Not to mention that I had to totally respect this guy’s secret. Maybe his wife didn’t know that the foreman hid this fact while at work. After all, she never went to any of the job sites, so her presence there never threatened his “front.”
The first incident that showed me how clever the foreman was, occurred during breakfast. I noticed that after receiving our menus, he would pretend to view the menu. He would mimic looking it over to make his decision. He would then make small talk with the wait staff. Then when it came time to place our orders, out of politeness, he would always order last. He would close his menu and then tell the wait staff that he would have the same thing I was having. If interaction occurred within a group setting, he could hear what the others ordered, and then tell the waitress which order he wanted to copy. This method worked for him, and no one was wise to his secret. I could always tell who he was going to copy. I noticed once he had heard what order he wanted, he immediately put down his menu. Every time: like clockwork,
The second clue came one day when the foreman locked his keys in his truck. We worked tirelessly attempting to get into that vehicle but to no avail. As the foreman was preparing to smash out a window, I stopped him and suggested that he instead call a locksmith and save himself some money. I figured just pay the locksmith price rather than break an expensive window.
The foreman couldn’t read, so instead he made some excuse why I should go look up the number while he attended to something else of equal importance. Ha ha! It dawned on me that this was an attempt to hide the fact that he couldn’t perform such a seemingly easy task most of us take for granted. This guy knew how to apply a successful covering move. I ended up retrieving the number for him, but I still didn’t let on that I knew he couldn’t read.
Potential clients would call the foreman to go out to specific work locations so that he could observe what needed to be done, and then he’d be able to give them a fair estimate on the job. The foreman would always ask me to accompany him on these calls. Eventually I figured out his M.O. The reason the foreman would ask me along to the potential job site was because he needed me to read the directions and show him where to go. The foreman only invited me along on the initial trip. Not being able to read, he would simply visually memorize the physical route and then after that, he would know where to go in the future. In other words, after he learned where to go, he could make the return trips without me. And to make the act more believable, he would act like he was looking for the streets with me!
As the summer began to enter August, I knew I would be returning to college soon. This meant that I would also be leaving the crew. After nearly 3 months of interacting with the foreman, I realized that his methods of coping with his illiteracy were both clever and pragmatic. As far as I could tell, no one else at his job ever figured out that the foreman couldn’t read. He was that clever. Like I said, I was really only clued in because of a third-party: his wife.
Like I said earlier, out of respect, I never let on that I knew about his illiteracy. Hell, I was impressed and wish that I didn’t have to leave so I could interact with him some more in order to observe more of his coping mechanisms. He was damn clever. To this day, I wonder how that foreman is getting along in a video-dominant society.
real world sociology pete padilla