Carpenter recognized for literacy achievement 40 years after leaving school

Doug Curtis left school at the age of 14 without learning to read or write, but more than 40 years later he has been recognized for his achievements in literacy.

'It bothered me because I always had to depend on somebody else'

Doug Curtis and Margaret Knox both won awards from the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance Sunday. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

Doug Curtis left school at the age of 14 without learning to read or write, but more than 40 years later he has been recognized for his achievements in literacy.

Curtis and his tutor Margaret Knox were presented with awards by the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance on Sunday.

Learning to read and write was a long-time coming for Curtis. When he left school he was still doing work at the Grade 2 and 3 level.

"I never passed a grade in my life. I learned how to cheat really young because when the teacher would ask you to copy something off the blackboard I would literally copy it," he told Island Morning's Matt Rainnie.

"All I knew was C-A-T. I didn't recognize it as cat."

Learning on the job

Curtis moved to Ontario to work as a roofer. He picked up carpentry skills by watching others on the job, and for decades made a living.

He got along OK, continuing to find ways to cheat and get along. For example, waiting for everyone else to order at a restaurant and then ordering something someone else had. He would tell some close friends about his literacy problems.

"It bothered me because I always had to depend on somebody else for reading any kind of documents," he said.

But health troubles caught up with Curtis. Spinal stenosis, along with hip troubles, forced him out of his carpentry job. Without his GED, he couldn't get a job as a foreman or supervisor.

"I figured if I was going to make a living I was going to have to use my brain, and in order to use my brain I would have to be taught how to read and write," he said.

'Something I had to do'

Curtis was 56 years old when he walked into P.E.I. Literacy Alliance and told them he wanted to learn to read.

"It was difficult, but it was something I had to do," he said.

The alliance partnered him with Margaret Knox.

As part of his speech Doug Curtis read aloud a birthday card he bought for his sister, something he couldn't have done a few years ago. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

Two years later Curtis was invited to the PGI Golf Tournament to receive the Dianne Smith Learner Achievement Award. At the dinner, Knox discovered she had won the 2018 Literacy Volunteer Award.

Knox retired from the school system seven years ago, and continues to teach because she believes in it so strongly.

"To be a reader gives you independence, it gives you confidence, it gives you opportunities and choices," she said.

Curtis figures he will be done his GED in two years. After that, he plans to take a small-business course before returning to the construction industry as a supervisor, foreman, or perhaps even owner.

More P.E.I. news

With files from Island Morning