69 and proud to read, write and use a computer

After a bad start in school due to poor health, John Murdoch concealed his illiteracy for most of his life. Now everything has changed and he is one of Learndirect's champions of 2004, writes Raymond Ross

Last year, on St Andrew's Day, retired Lanarkshire miner John Murdoch was named Older Learner of the Year and presented with an award by Learndirect Scotland at a ceremony in Edinburgh.

One of five individual winners named that day, the 69-year-old great-grandfather only began to learn to read and write at the age of 65 and his progress was temporarily halted by a long period in hospital. Now John is a reader at his local church, buys two newspapers a day and helps his 5-year-old grandson with his reading. He has also completed a 10-week computer course.

When John left school at the age of 15, he could sign for his wages at the week's end but that was about it, he says. He had been burned in his home by the coal fire - he doesn't know the details - when he was six months old. "I started school at about the age of 6 or 7 but I had to attend the hospital in Glasgow every week and sometimes I had to spend periods in hospital. No one ever came there to help me, like they do today.

"So I didn't really start school full-time till I was 9 or 10 and I was put in class with 9-year-olds and expected to keep up. Of course, I couldn't and I was belted for it.

"I resented the teachers who belted me because I couldn't read and write. I hated school," he says.

You don't see much resentment in John's eyes today but his fear of school remained. Even when he met his first literacy tutor, his hands were sweating so much that he refused to shake her hand out of embarrassment, he says.

Crossing the threshold at Lammermoor Primary's community education centre in Wishaw when he was 65 was the bravest thing he has done in his life, he says. But what brought him to do it?

"I'm an alcoholic. A friend of mine became a Christian. He told me he prayed for me and he bought me a Bible. He told me to get away from the drink.

"Then he asked me: 'Are you reading your Bible?' I admitted I wasn't, because I couldn't read.

"That was the first time I'd admitted it to anyone in my life except my wife. Even my children didn't know I couldn't read or write. So, I had to do it, go to learn, because I had opened up to someone. I couldn't allow myself to move backwards then."

What surprised John was that adult literacy classes were nothing like school, that on any day he could say what he wanted to work on and that it was relaxing.

"I think what frightens people off about going back to learning is they think it will be like school, but it isn't. The learning centres are really informal."

John is regarded as a great ambassador for the adult literacy service in North Lanarkshire, speaking at events and encouraging other learners.

Cheryl Brown, the literacy and numeracy development worker at Motherwell College, was his tutor for a year. "Not only is John an excellent student, he's also something of an inspiration to the other learners. He encourages others to come, he puts newcomers at their ease and he's become something of a local legend," she says.

John had told his wife before they were married 49 years ago that he couldn't read or write. "She said it was nothing to worry about; she had enough brains for the two of us! But since I've won this award she's never off the phone. I think she's told everyone except the Prime Minister."

John's wife dealt with any letters that had to be written or read and she read bits from the newspapers to him. This was done in such a way that even his children didn't suspect. But it took its toll inwardly and was, he says, related to his alcoholism.

"The only time I was confident was when I was on the jungle juice. I came off six years ago. The church and the learning centre helps me to keep off.

God gave me the strength," he says.

"I have much more confidence now. I read out in church and I can speak in front of people. I've come out of my shell. I've enjoyed and I'm enjoying the learning.

"Everyone says I've shown real guts. Only one person I know has said to me: 'You're a thicko.' I just laughed and said: 'Yes, if you'd said that a few years ago it would have been true. But I'm learning now. So, who's the thicko?' " In fact, quite a few people, including some of his former drinking cronies, have confided in John that they can't read or write and he encourages them to do something about it.

"The problem is that you're ashamed, that you think you're the only one.

You think you're on your own. But you're not," he says.

The best days of John's life were not his school days but he tells his grandchildren to stick at lessons. "Can you imagine not being able to read until you're 65? I don't want them experiencing that.

"The only reason I'm here talking about it is to help other people, to tell them to get to school, to the learning centre."

John explained to his grandson's teacher that he was an adult learner. "She gave me his reading cards and we read to each other. Now I get his school books in advance and read them with him. He says to me, 'Grandad, are you a teacher?' and I say, 'Well, I'm teaching you, aren't I?'

"I read him bedtime stories too, something I could never do to my own children. Yes, I regret that."

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