Keith Harris had a secret when he started school in the U.S. for the first time: he didn't know how to read and write. After falling through the cracks of the educational system in Guyana, he decided to confide in his 9th grade English teacher at his Brooklyn high school. Now a successful and literate high school senior, Keith's story takes us into his journey to literacy.
Today starts the newest series from Radio Rookies - WNYC's Youth Program that trains New York City teens how to report radio stories. Keith Harris is 17 years old and only recently overcame a problem thousands of New York teenagers struggle with: illiteracy. He was raised in Guyana, but his mom sent him to the U.S for 9th grade. When Keith first started at The High School for Global Citizenship in Brooklyn, his teachers thought he was stubborn and resistant to class participation. And he was - because he didn't want them to know he could not read and write.
KEITH: A broken heart by Keith Harris. A broken heart is fill of tears and pain to surf survive without his love his life ain't nothing but dust, my life ain't nothing but...all right start over.
NARRATION: OH MY GOD! I don't like listening back to myself—I keep making mistakes.
KEITH: One more time—A broken heart by Keith Harris.
NARRATION: 2 years ago - I could not read or write. It's easy for me to tell you now, but I spent MOST OF my life hiding the truth.
NARRATION: This is my mom.
MOM: Keith, I would like you to make me proud.
NARRATION: When I was growing up In Guyana, I didn't make my mom proud. School was my enemy, instead of going to class—I would play cricket, gamble with friends or go swimming. One time I almost drowned.
MOM: A man come home and told us a little boy actually drowned. So I didn't really think it was Keith until when Keith show up. Keith eyes red, red, red. That was the little boy was in the river.
NARRATION: I was a bad boy. On Sundays, as soon as church was over, I would run straight home just because I didn't want to have to read the Bible out loud in Sunday school. I never told anyone that I couldn't read and write. I wanted it to be a secret. So we all pretended everything was fine. Sometimes my mom still does.
MOM: Well school in Guyana was brilliant. Very perfect.
KEITH: What was my report card like?
MOM: Keith used to get like 75 and I think that was good.
NARRATION: Nah—she's lying. I used to fail! By the time I was 14, I was getting into so much trouble that my mom sent me to the U.S. for high school.
MOM: I had to beat him on his hands.
NARRATION: But—I was already really good at hiding my problems.
KEITH: Yo what up?
NARRATION: My number one rule: never ever read out loud. When it was close to my turn, I would always ask to go to the bathroom.
NARRATION: When I tried to read, the pages looked like a forest with no single tree. Everything was just a blur. And my handwriting, oh my god! It was scrappy and nappy like barb wire, I hated it!
MS. BAUER: Write one more paragraph...
NARRATION: All I wanted to do and all I did was play basketball. And believe it or not, it was basketball that got me to start paying attention in school.
COACH JONES: When Keith first came in I remember seeing him in the gym I saw a tall lanky kid.
NARRATION: Coach Jones wanted me to play on the basketball team, but he told me I needed a 75 average. Guess what? He was lying.
COACH JONES: You didn't need a 75 average, you just needed to pass a certain amount of classes.
NARRATION: He wanted me to be a good student.
COACH JONES: I wanted to try to push you.
NARRATION: I really, really, wanted to make the team—I wanted to be the next Dwayne Wade from the Miami Heats like everyone said I could be. But to get a 75 average I needed help - I could not keep my secret anymore.
(knock on door)
KEITH: Hi Ms. Kelterborn.
NARRATION: Ms. Kelterborn was the first person I told I couldn't read.
MS. KELTERBORN: I didn't know what to do. I didn't want you to be embarrassed. So I was like okay give him a comic book he could tell the stories through pictures. But that still must have been frustrating for you, because you couldn't read the words. You must have been just been like this woman is crazy. I just told this woman I can't read and she handed me a comic book.
TEACHER: Practice those hw!
NARRATION: In the 10th grade, Ms. Kelterborn got me into a class just for students who can't read and write. Ms. Bauer changed my life.
MS. BAUER: Um do you remember one of the first books that you read in independent reading with me?
KEITH: Yeah um the first part last.
MS. BAUER: Uhuh the first part last.
NARRATION: That's my favorite book. It's the first book I ever finished reading.
KEITH: I read it twice and in like probably in like two months.
NARRATION: When she asked me to read out loud, I did it, because no one would laugh at me.
MS. BAUER: You were quiet and you would mumble and I'd always say, sit up and speak clearly, and I'd stand all the way on the opposite side of the room and I'd say you need to speak up so we can hear you and now I never have to say that you always speak up 'cause you want everyone to hear you.
NARRATION: When reading finally started to make sense, I was so proud of myself. I laughed so much my jaw started to crack. And around that same time, Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heats won the NBA championship.
T.V. CLIP: The Miami Heat, they've done it!
NARRATION: Everything was just great! He won and I won.
T.V. CLIP: Congratulations to Dwayne Wade!
MS. HUGHES: When you started here in 9th grade Ms. Kelterborn you had failed both English classes. And now you're scoring 80s in English!
NARRATION: At the end of my junior year, my guidance counselor Ms. Hughes told me I'm on track to graduate, as long as I pass the state tests.
MS. HUGHES: The fact that you haven't given up but rather you've used your frustration as power impresses me like you can't imagine.
NARRATION: Yes! I can't believe it myself. I learned to read so fast.
NARRATION: But, just because I'm reading and writing now does not mean things are easy. There's still a lot more work to do. And I'm doing it all by myself.
NARRATION: My mom visits once in a while, but she still lives in Guyana. I wish she was here to help me.
KEITH: Yo (bang on mic)
NARRATION: Last year when I took the SAT test, there was no one to make sure I have money or food. Or even to take me there.
KEITH: Gonna take the SAT test, it means so much to me. Damn! I'm nervous.
(In store, opens door)
KEITH: Can I have a pencil, two pencils, #2?
NARRATION: I had to sign up, buy pencils, and figure out how to get there all on my own.
KEITH: Miss, can I ask you a question if you ever take the SAT before?
WOMAN: I take it home in Trinidad.
KEITH: It was hard.
WOMAN: If you studied it wouldn't be hard...
WOMAN: God bless you all the best.
KEITH: Thank you.
KEITH: Thank you for these pencils man.
MS. BAUER: Okay so I'm going to ask you to read a word list to me. So I am going to give you this.
NARRATION: 2 years ago I could never imagine myself wanting to take a test.
KEITH: Um, today I am doing assessment with Ms. Bauer. she's trying to test out my level of reading and I just hope it's at least at 10th grade and not like 7th or 6th because I'm gonna be real mad.
KEITH: Read it like all the words?
MS. BAUER: Okay you're going to read one word at a time. Start with word list A.
KEITH: Get, is, and, there, see, not.
NARRATION: I was saying the words so fast. It was so easy, but after awhile it got harder.
KEITH: The little sick girl would stay equally in bed, wait, the little girl sick, the little sick girl would stay quietly in bed at home while her mother was away.
NARRATION: After the test, Ms. Bauer said that I could find out my score if I wanted, but I decided not to. I'm not ready yet. If she says I'm still at 6th or 7th grade reading level, I don't want people to know. I believe in the truth, but sometimes the truth hurts a little too much.
KEITH: And hearing something like that might make me want to give up, which I am not going to do.
NARRATION: I don't want my mom to be embarrassed by me. I want her to say to everyone that when I was in Guyana I could not read or write, but now I can.
KEITH: I am in the Kitchen, no food is cooking though. Um this is my mom. Can you give me a summary of my report card in Guyana?
KEITH: And this time the truth.
MOM: You, used to fail.
KEITH: Say, remember how you was lying and you was like I had 75? Why you say that?
MOM: Because I was shame of you.
KEITH: One thing you like about me in America?
MOM: You develop very fast and you learn and I admire you for everything you've done.
NARRATION: For WNYC I am rookie reporter Keith Harris.
NARRATION: Read a book.
Read a book! (music starts) "Read a book, read a book, read a ___ book. R E A D A B O O K, R E A D A B O O K, not a sports page, not a magazine but a book."