He's not alone. North Carolina has the nation's third highest percentage of illiterate adults. An estimated 20,000 Mecklenburg County adults have less than a 9th grade education. Even more disturbing is that many of the folks interviewed for this story -- despite the fact that many of them attended some high school -- still don't have the basic skills necessary to read the daily newspaper. It's a devastating shortcoming that can impact almost every aspect of life -- from landing a decent job and getting a driver's license to being able to order dinner from a restaurant menu. It's a life that is often wrapped around the illiterate person's "secret." It's something that takes enormous amounts of inner energy and alertness to conceal from literate society. Human ingenuity being what it is, however, many people who are illiterate learn to "make do." Amazingly, most of the people in this story, with the help of friends, family, plain old luck and gritty determination, have managed to adapt and, at least to some degree, overcome their lack of education. They held down jobs, raised families, and otherwise went about the business of life. But they say it was an uphill struggle -- one they're now hoping to ease by hitting the books. People Can't Say Nothing Then
Johnny grew up in Charlotte's SouthPark area back when it was just farmland. He never knew his father and, along with his seven siblings, was raised by his grandfather and mother.
"I come up real poor, and didn't have fitting clothes to wear or any of that," he says. Like the rest of the boys in the family, he was expected to work on the farm, which took priority over school and education. "My people, when I come up, all they knew was work. At 4 in the morning I had to get up and milk the cows, then I was in the fields all day. On Saturday you didn't play, you cut wood. Then on Sunday you go to church. On Monday it would start all over again."
What little schooling he did receive left much to be desired. "Back then, if you were a slow learner, they would just put you to the side and teach the others. I was one of the slow learners, and the others would make fun of me. The teachers just passed me on. If you didn't learn nothing it didn't matter to them."
Johnny was 12 when his grandfather died, and he and his little brother moved in with his recently married sister. By this time Johnny was working on the farm all day, and school was long forgotten.
He eventually fell into a series of construction jobs, then in his early 20s started driving an 18-wheeler, hauling freight up to New York, Boston and Maine.
"When I first went to get my license, I had to go back two or three times to pass the test," he says. "What I would do is get someone to read the book to me, and I'd put the answers on my hand and study them -- like A, B, C and D -- and memorize the order of the questions."
While Johnny managed to get a license, navigating his way around the interstates and city streets proved to be a bigger challenge than he had anticipated.
"It bothered me for awhile when I first started running up in New York," he says. "You really have to know your streets and turns -- where trucks can go and where trucks can't go."
To find his way, Johnny would often call the phone number on the freight bills and ask directions, but instead of street names, he would ask for buildings, gas stations and other landmarks to help him locate his destination. While it seems that not being able to read road signs would have been a recipe for disaster, or at the very least cut short a career as a truck driver, Johnny did it for 37 years.