The teacher who couldn't read: Man describes how he kept his illiteracy a secret and managed to con his way into a 17 year teaching career before finally coming clean and turning his life around

  • John Corcoran, now 77, remarkably only learned to read at the age of 48
  • Corcoran finished high school, got a college degree and landed himself a teaching job in the 1960s despite not being able to read or write
  • He went years without telling anybody about his illiteracy secret
  • Corcoran cheated on high school exams by copying others or letting his classmates fill in his answers for him
  • When he went to college on an athletics scholarship, Corcoran had to adopt extreme measures like breaking into a professor's office to steal papers
  • He got involved in an adult literacy program at the local library in 1986 after heading Barbara Bush speak on TV about it 

A California man has described how he managed to keep his illiteracy a secret from the world for decades - even when he worked as a teacher for 17 years. 

John Corcoran, now 77, remarkably only learned to read at the age of 48. 

Despite the fact that he couldn't read or write, Corcoran finished high school, went on to earn himself a college degree and then landed himself a high school teaching job in the 1960s. 

He went years without telling anybody about his illiteracy secret.

California man John Corcoran, now 77, remarkably only learned to read at the age of 48 and managed to keep his illiteracy secret for decades 

California man John Corcoran, now 77, remarkably only learned to read at the age of 48 and managed to keep his illiteracy secret for decades 

Corcoran, who grew up in New Mexico, said when he was a young boy his teachers kept telling his parents that he was a smart boy and that he would eventually learn to read and write.

But by the time he reached middle school Corcoran had given up on himself, started rebelling and was later expelled.

Corcoran, who grew up in New Mexcio, said when he was a young boy his teachers kept telling his parents that he was a smart boy and that he would eventually learn to read and write

Corcoran, who grew up in New Mexcio, said when he was a young boy his teachers kept telling his parents that he was a smart boy and that he would eventually learn to read and write

Eventually, Corcoran said he decided to stop embarrassing himself and use his other skills to his advantage to learn how to maneuver his way through high school.

'I wanted to be an athlete - I had athletic skills, and I had maths skills - I could count money and make change before I even went to school and I learned the times tables,' he said in a BBC podcast. 

'I had social skills too - I ran around with college kids, I dated the valedictorian - the student with the highest grades who gives a speech at the graduation ceremony, I was the homecoming king, I had people - mostly girls - do my homework for me.

'I could write my name and there were some words that I could remember, but I couldn't write a sentence - I was in high school and reading at the second or third grade level. And I never told anybody that I couldn't read.'

Corcoran cheated on high school exams by copying others or letting his classmates fill in his answers for him. 

When he went to college on an athletics scholarship, Corcoran had to adopt extreme measures to hide his secret. 

Corcoran, above with his granddaughter, learned to read in 1986 when he heard then-second lady Barbara Bush talking about adult literacy on TV

Corcoran, above with his granddaughter, learned to read in 1986 when he heard then-second lady Barbara Bush talking about adult literacy on TV

Corcoran shared his story publicly soon after learning to read and it attracted worldwide attention. He wrote his first book about his experiences in 1994 before launching the John Corcoran Foundation in 1997

Corcoran shared his story publicly soon after learning to read and it attracted worldwide attention. He wrote his first book about his experiences in 1994 before launching the John Corcoran Foundation in 1997

'In one exam the professor put four questions on the board. I was sitting at the back of the room, near the window, behind the older students. I had my blue book and I painstakingly copied the four questions off the board. I didn't know what those questions said,' he said.

'I had arranged for a friend of mine to be outside the window. I passed my blue book out the window to him and he answered the questions for me. I had another blue exam book underneath my shirt and I took it out and pretended I was writing in it.'

Corcoran even once broke into a professor's office in the middle of the night to steal a locked filing cabinet where exam papers were being kept. He called a locksmith, got an exam paper and returned the cabinet before anyone knew what was happening. 

When he graduated, Corcoran said he was offered a job teaching athletics, social studies and typing. 

'Looking back it was crazy that I would do that. But I'd been through high school and college without getting caught - so being a teacher seemed a good place to hide. Nobody suspects a teacher of not knowing how to read,' he said.

'I remember how fearful I was. I couldn't even take the roll - I had to ask the students to pronounce their names so I could hear their names. And I always had two or three students who I identified early - the ones who could read and write best in the classroom - to help me. They were my teaching aids.'

Corcoran, above with his wife, their granddaughter and her husband, has now written three books to help improve literacy 

Corcoran, above with his wife, their granddaughter and her husband, has now written three books to help improve literacy 

Corcoran said he tried to tell his wife his secret right before they got married, but she thought he meant he didn't read very much. 

It wasn't until he was supposed to be reading a story to his daughter years later that his wife realized the truth. He said the pair never spoke of it, but his wife continued to support him. 

He quit his teaching job in 1978 and moved into real estate development. 

In 1986 when he was about to turn 48, Corcoran said he heard then second lady Barbara Bush talking about adult literacy. 

He took it upon himself to go to the local library where adult literacy programs were being run and got a 65-year-old volunteer tutor.

Within 13 months, Corcoran was reading at a sixth grade level. He shared his story publicly soon after and it attracted worldwide attention. 

Corcoran has been telling his story ever since. He wrote his first book about his experiences in 1994 before launching the John Corcoran Foundation in 1997. 

He has now written three books, including the latest that was published in November.  

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