I Left School Without Knowing How To Read Or Write

The only people who knew my secret were my parents, my brother and my wife.

22/08/2016 4:10 PM AEST | Updated 23/08/2016 11:20 AM AEST
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I couldn't even spell basic words such as ‘bread’ and ‘milk’.

As children we love to have dreams and aspirations for our lives; to be a fireman, policeman, doctor or even an astronaut. As we get older we apply ourselves to the goals and aspirations that we seek. Unfortunately, for me those dreams were very far away.

I attended school like most children, but for me something was not right. At primary school, teachers would say: "You're not keeping up with the class". By the time I reached high school, I was completely illiterate; I couldn't even spell basic words such as 'bread' and 'milk'.

English and maths are most probably the two most important things in life that you can learn.

For me, English was a disaster. Obviously having a literacy problem made the class almost impossible for me to contribute. As for maths, I remember one maths teacher who said to me: "You are wasting my time and the other class member's time as well." So once a week when we had a double maths class, I'd take my golf clubs to school and play nine holes. In a strange way, it actually improved my maths because I had to add the scores up after each game.

The other problem with school was the mental side of it. Having people laugh at you, ask you to spell words that they knew you couldn't spell, certainly affects you. I don't blame my classmates -- they just thought it was just fun and as children we have no idea the damage that this kind of behaviour can have on an individual.

I was halfway through year 10 when my parents decided it would be best to take me out of school and try an alternative school that could teach me English. This was possibly the most difficult time for me. I'd see friends on the street and they'd ask: "Where have you been?" I'd tell them I was helping my father but I'd be back very soon, knowing full well that I would never return. Eventually I stopped going out and tried my best to avoid all contact with my friends because I was ashamed of my situation.

Looking back on my parents' decision to take me out of school, can I say it was right? Who knows, but what I do know is that every day since then my parents have never stopped trying to help me. When everyday tasks such as banking were a challenge, my parents sat and helped me understand the spelling of the numbers. By this stage, I remember having very low self-esteem because I felt like a failure, but my parents tried their best to make me feel like there was a future.

As an adult I always wanted to go back to school, but my high school experience made me hesitant. Eventually I decided to go to my local TAFE, and it was the most determined period of my life. I was constantly writing, doing all the worksheets and trying my best to read lots of books. I wish I could have clicked my fingers and made everything better, but the reality of the situation was dedication and lots of hard work.

During the last year of TAFE, the most wonderful thing happened to me: I met my wife.

It was difficult at the start. On Tuesday nights she would ask me if we could go out and I would reply "Not tonight." The truth was I was too embarrassed to tell her I went to school. She eventually worked things out and the truth had to come out. You can really tell who your friends are in life when you open up about yourself. I am so happy to say that she is my best friend and so supportive.

I've since left TAFE and am now at an adult education class called PRACE. I've been going there for over three years and the relationship with my teacher is more like a friendship. I enjoy the fact she challenges me and that she will read all the writing and corrects all the work I present to her.

Throughout my life, I've been very self-conscious of my literacy. The only people in my life who knew my secret were my parents, my brother and my wife. So why did I choose to go on television to talk about it? I wanted to let people know that there are opportunities, even when you think the door is closed.

When I was sixteen I didn't even have the ability to put two words together -- now I am writing this document. I feel I have achieved something with my life. I'm not there yet but I have come a long way. It's a beautiful part of being human: we always want to learn. Even though the journey may be challenging, going back to an adult school can be one of the most rewarding things you can do.

See more of Mark's story on Insight, tonight at 8.30 pm on SBS.

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