Mother, 49, Becomes Literate to Read to Her Son

Denise O'Neal, adult literacy student

Denise O’Neal hid behind a secret for most of her life until one day her 3-year-old son asked her to read a Dr. Seuss book to him. She couldn’t do it. The 49-year-old mother could not read.

At age 6, Denise had a difficult time reading children’s books. Throughout her childhood, she faced a number of frustrating hurdles—she would find small words like “it” and “the” overwhelming. Getting through a single page meant nothing—once she finished a page, Denise already had forgotten everything she read due to her struggle to comprehend the words. She later discovered that her challenges stemmed from dyslexia.

With what little time was available due to work, Denise’s mother attempted to help but found it difficult to be patient with her slow progress. Denise ended up working with a tutor but instead of learning how to read and comprehend text, she developed her own workarounds and coping mechanisms. Her inability to read hid in plain sight.

Denise did everything that she could to get by and make it through school. Always sitting in the back of class to avoid being called upon, she hid her secret and implemented her workarounds all throughout grade school. She skimmed the textbook indexes, bolded texts, and review sections, copied text from reports she found online, made up overviews of assigned reading assignments, and she even practiced speaking articulately to sound knowledgeable.

As graduation approached in 1988, Denise knew she had enough credits to graduate from Powey High in Powey, California. However, her 4th- or 5th-grade reading level would stir up trouble when she tried to pass the state equivalency tests. After nine summers of failed attempts, she passed in 1997.

Due to the reading requirements, Denise skipped college to settle into office jobs. She eventually earned her human resources certificate and worked toward her business management certificate.

She married a grade school friend who did not know then about her reading difficulty, and had her son. Finally, the day came when her son wanted to hear his mother read him a story—a moment a mother dreams of. Denise’s husband motivated her to seek help from the San Diego Council on Literacy, a council who she now serves as a member of its board of directors.

And now, she can read to her son.

“If I didn’t keep failing, I wouldn’t have learned. If I didn’t learn I would have never changed.”
Denise O’Neal

Women's Empowerment Through Literacy


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