Earl Mills’ Poetry Expresses Ups and Downs of Learning to Read

By age 45, Earl Mills was married with five children, owned his own home, and had worked for the same company for over 25 years. Although he had everything he could ask for, Mills faced a significant challenge every day—he could not read. For over 40 years, Mills’ wife was the only person who knew he could not read. He was able to keep the secret between them until he was asked to read a Bible passage one Sunday at church. After that, Mills found help, and he read his first book at age 48.

“Most people think that they don’t know anyone who can’t read, but the person who can’t read is your co-worker, your next door neighbor or the person you just passed on the street. It’s the person sitting beside of you in the church pew.” 
—Earl Mills

He Devoted Three Years to Gaining His Literacy Skills

Mills found assistance at the Craven Literacy Council, in New Bern, North Carolina. He was assessed at a second-grade reading level. He devoted three years to improving his literacy skills, and he applied his frustrations and achievements to his newly developed passion—poetry. 

Today, Mills is an accomplished poet, a passionate advocate for adult literacy, and a motivational speaker. He has received numerous awards and honors, and is devoted to promoting adult literacy and education. Mills has published a number of books, including From Illiterate to Poet, which contains many of his moving and inspiring poems about, among other things, his literacy journey and his love for his wife. 

We have selected three of his poems from the book for you to enjoy today for World Poetry Day.  Do you have a favorite Earl Mills poem? Who is your favorite poet? Share with us in the comments below.

Twenty-six Letters

Befuddled by the alphabet-
Fifty years old and can’t read yet.
Twenty-six letters have brought me such shame.
Someone asked me to spell my name.
Another bulletin at work today-
Who can I ask, “What does it say?”
“Grandpa, will you read this book to me?”
I tell her the letters are too small to see.

I don’t have my glasses, I’m running late- 
I am victim to this lie I hate.
Cannot read-won’t tell a soul.
Secrets of my youth-now I am old.
Letter after letter I can’t figure out.
Frustration inside-a silent shout.
Twenty-six letters can raise so much hell.
They have secrets to me they will not tell.

This secret locked within-
I will not let these letters win.

My Name is Illiterate

I’m red, yellow, black and white. 
From every nation and tongue, 
Old, middle age and young. 

I have no boundaries, generational or race.
My father couldn't read. Now I take his place.
You look for me in all the wrong places. 
For I’m closer than you think.

Sitting in the church pew, 
Pretending to read just like you. 

Hidden in plain sight,
Woven into the fabric of society,
Because of my one ignorance. 

Masquerading as literate 
Has become my game, 
Because of the shame 
Of my real name. 

Avoiding situations 
In fear of hearing this word. 
READ—that which I cannot do.

Many try to give me a face.
With social status or race.

I’m just ordinary people
That cannot read.

Embarrassment keeps me from coming to you.
Normally, it takes a tragedy
For me to break through.

I’ve tried to paint a picture
ON the canvas of your mind,
To help you understand 
This illiterate life of mine.

After All These Years

After all these years, my heart still flutters.
Now and again, my name you utter.

I see you in the faces of the children we’ve raised
Every time I take a gaze.

A wife, a friend, and lover-
Why would one look for another?

On your encouragement I can depend
When I need it time and again.

In times of joy, we laugh.
When I am wrong, you tell me-
A better man you want me to be.

Smiles like sunshine,
Hugs of gold-
Thinking of you,
I’ll never grow old. 

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