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From illiterate to role model

Once, John Zickefoose couldn't read to his children or order from a menu. Today, he's a school board member and Corona library advocate.

January 05, 2011|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times

The metamorphosis is as quick as the turn of a page: John Zickefoose is a hyperactive goose, a laid-back bear, a monkey, a tiger. The children at the Corona Public Library squeal with laughter as the man whose name rhymes with Seuss becomes louder and more animated.

There was a time when reading the simple words of a picture book would have proved impossible for Zickefoose. He spent years in school overwhelmed with sadness that nothing came as easily to him as it did for others. He would become rowdy, preferring to be kicked out of class than to be called on by the teacher.

Zickefoose was functionally illiterate, unable to read a prescription label, his children's report cards or a menu. He was diagnosed as a young boy with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and didn't learn to read and write until he was 35.

That's when everything changed. He became a poster boy for the Corona library's adult reading program, began to speak publicly about his own struggles and was named the library's literacy director. He founded a nonprofit youth organization.

And on Dec. 7, Zickefoose, 52, was sworn in as a member of the Corona-Norco Unified School District Board of Education.

For the boy who couldn't understand the words on his high school diploma, the journey to the school board was the culmination of a vow to do something meaningful in life and help prevent others from starting out as he did.

"I'll be able to bring, quite frankly, an unusual perspective of what it feels like to be in the classroom and be a failure," Zickefoose said. "I don't want any child to go through what I went through."

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For years, even his wife wasn't aware of the severity of his limitations.

He would wish there was a magic pill he could take to make his disabilities disappear. The lowest point, he said, came when he couldn't understand his 7- year-old's homework assignments. When Shawn asked for help, Zickefoose sat with him at the kitchen table. But when Zickefoose looked at the textbook, all he saw were letters strung together that made no sense.

When he tried to fake his way through a bedtime story, his son would tell him, "No, Dad, that's not what it says." The little boy had no idea he was making him feel that he was failing as a father.

It was then that Zickefoose resolved to enroll in an adult literacy class at the Corona library. He was embarrassed and angry at himself. He had always been able to hide his illiteracy and wriggle out of uncomfortable situations. Now he believed there was no other option.

It didn't go well at first. Zickefoose insisted on starting with more complicated sentences and words than he was ready for, out of embarrassment. He wanted to cancel on his first day. This is stupid, he thought. He was incapable of learning.

But his tutor persuaded him to start with the basic building blocks of reading and writing. The one-on-one interaction was just what he needed.

Within six months, he was reading novels and nonfiction.

An estimated 30 million American adults can't read a newspaper or fill out a job application. Many have learning disabilities. Others are dropouts, victims of failing school systems. Some are immigrants with deficient English language skills who may also be illiterate in their native tongues.

But Zickefoose is also an anomaly. Only about 5% of adults who need services receive them, mainly because there is still so much shame attached to the condition, said David C. Harvey, president and chief executive of ProLiteracy, an international advocacy group. Zickefoose serves on the board of directors.

"John is a national role model because one of the most effective ways to break down that stigma is to have people who have had this problem talk about it," Harvey said. "He's a shining example of what can happen when someone gets services and puts those new skills to work."

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Zickefoose was brought up in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, and his father and stepmother tried hard to help him. He blamed himself for his failures, not his teachers, whom he says were supportive and wanted him to succeed.

He went to specialists in Chicago who identified his problems in school but couldn't provide a solution.

"They have come so much further now in dealing with learning disabilities in a more efficient and productive manner," Zickefoose said. " Back then, they were good at diagnosing but they didn't have the tools to address it."

Once, in the fifth grade, he raised his hand to answer a question and was devastated when he got the answer wrong and a friend answered it correctly. Looking at a sign, a book or a newspaper was like being in a foreign country, confronted with a totally alien language, he said. Without the code, he couldn't master math or science or any other subject.

Still, he managed to scrape by with Ds and to graduate. Most states, in the late 1970s, did not require students to pass math and English tests to receive a diploma.

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