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Friday, July 11, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2005

Illiteracy is a burden with great cost to self, society

The other morning Jacques Demers did a remarkable thing. He read the Journal de Montreal, one of the newspapers in his hometown. It took him 90 minutes. For that, Mr. Demers is my hero for this month.

I'm not mentioning this because I'm a newspaper editor whose livelihood depends on convincing the skeptical that there is 90 minutes of value in a newspaper that you can buy on the street for spare change, though on another occasion I would be very glad to make that argument. Nor am I mentioning it because Mr. Demers is a famous hockey coach (five professional teams, including the Montreal Canadiens squad that won the Stanley Cup in 1993) and his attention to the newspaper is the functional equivalent of a product endorsement. Not that at all.

I'm lingering on all this because Mr. Demers - despite his fame, despite his accomplishments, despite his position atop the pantheon of the winter game in a country where one of the great poets, Gilles Vigneault, once wrote, "My country is not a country; it's winter" - just announced that he had spent his life hiding the fact that he was illiterate.

I called Mr. Demers up, in part because it occurred to me that the long effort to hide the fact that he could neither read nor write just might have been harder than learning to read and to write.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the really hard part wasn't faking it. The really hard part was, at age 61, stopping faking it.

He stopped cold turkey a few days ago. He wrote a book (not exactly wrote, as you can imagine) telling the world that he couldn't write, and the day before it came out he called his son and his daughter and told them what even they never suspected. They said to him what Mr. Demers used to say to them: I'm proud of you.

"I want people who cannot read to see two things," Mr. Demers said in our phone conversation. "A man can succeed without being able to read or write. But they also have to know that they have to come out of the closet, go to school, stop living a secret life. They have to believe that because I was successful they can be successful, too."

Mr. Demers grew up in Montreal. His father was a janitor who exchanged his own labor for a free apartment in a Cote-des-Neiges apartment building. Do not leap to the conclusion that this is one of those hard-work-reaps-big rewards homilies. Mr. Demers' father abused his wife and his son, and one of the many sad results was that the young Jacques was so intimidated, he never spoke up in class, never got the help with the rudiments he needed, and ultimately never finished eighth grade.

Mr. Demers dropped out, unloaded a Coca-Cola truck for years, was a mere survivor on streets that, especially in winter, can be mean. His brother-in-law asked him to help coach a junior hockey team, and he found that he liked it and, what is more, that he was good at it. He made it to the pros when the fabled Marcel Pronovost, a legend on the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, asked him to be an assistant coach in the rogue World Hockey Association.

There he took faking it to new levels. "My success as a coach came from motivation and teamwork," he says. "My anxiety helped me to coach. But I had angels - secretaries and PR people - who did the writing for me. Many times I 'lost my glasses.' I learned ways to protect myself."

It worked, for a while, actually for a very great while. But his internal anger never went away, and at his wife's urging he sought psychological help. He didn't tell his secret until his NHL days were over. "Until I knew my career was done in the NHL, I would never do this," he says. "I would not get an NHL job as someone who could not read."

But now he has done it, and it is an act of character far greater than anything he ever did on the ice.

There are great costs to illiteracy. One health-care industry study estimated that illiteracy causes the nation to spend $73 billion in unnecessary medical expenses. Seventy percent of prison inmates are either functionally illiterate or read below the eighth-grade level.

The greatest costs aren't to the pocketbook but to the spirit. It is measured not in dollars lost nor even in opportunities lost but in experiences lost: the experience of encountering something of interest, something of relevance, most of all something of beauty. Mr. Demers knows that, and in truth he knew that even when he couldn't read or write.

Now his life has new purpose, or rather, two new purposes. Here's the first: "I was always motivated to tell my dad he was wrong, because he said I was dumb and would never achieve anything. And I wanted to honor my mom, who died so young, so I am giving part of the money from the book to a shelter for abused women."

Here's the second purpose: "I promise here that eventually I will write a letter to thank everybody for their support." That will be lots of letters. My bet is that he gets around to every last one of them, and that he writes them himself.



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