Reading, Writing, and Fatherhood: One Man’s Journey to Literacy

Last year, Oliver James embarked on a journey to teach himself how to read as an adult. Recently, he shared his inspiring story and his passion for literacy with buildOn Chicago students.

A 34-year-old father of two, Oliver James is one of the over 8 million Americans who are functionally illiterate, and one of 773 million adults around the world who cannot read or write. But he’s on a journey to change that.

Growing up surrounded by poverty in Bethany, Pennsylvania, Oliver was moved around to nearly a dozen schools. He struggled with learning disabilities, was placed in special education, and suffered abuse at the hands of his teachers for years.

“They called it restraining, but it was abuse,” Oliver shares. “I think now in 2023, we realize that you should never touch a child in the first place.”

Oliver began to associate school and anything that had to do with learning with the abusive behavior he endured. “I felt like I would have to go through some type of life or death situation just to read a book. Like something was going to hurt me because I was learning,” he recalls. Oliver says this mindset ultimately led him to serving time in prison at the age of 19 and being caught in a “spiral of repetitive patterns” that kept leading him back to a life he didn’t want to live.

Oliver speaking at an event honoring buildOn Chicago students for their service throughout the year

Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and changed everything––including Oliver’s perspective. He started to realize that if he wanted to change his life, he had to change his habits. Then about 18 months later, he found himself in the waiting room of his son’s pediatrician, unable to read or understand the paperwork.

This was the moment that confirmed what he already knew. “It was like a ‘bad dream come true’ scenario,” Oliver says. “Becoming a father and not knowing how to read, it immediately kind of opened my brain up to understanding that my kid will go down the exact same path that I went down if I don’t figure out how to make this change.”

That’s when Oliver decided that the best way to change the trajectory of his life was to teach himself how to read. For accountability, he uploaded a video to TikTok with the now viral words, “What’s up?! I can’t read.”

Since that day, Oliver has amassed over 135,000 followers on TikTok, 1.2 million ‘likes,’ and is inspiring others to take charge of their own lives. He admits that teaching yourself how to read as an adult isn’t easy, particularly when you’re facing challenges like OCD, ADHD, and PTSD. But it’s worth it.

Oliver sharing his story about teaching himself how to read as an adult

“In order to become the person that you see yourself being in the future, you must be that person now,” Oliver says. “Live as that person and you will become that person. I live as a reader even when I can’t read. And I started to become one.”

Now, Oliver travels around the country for speaking engagements to share his story. He even gave a motivational talk to Chicago buildOn students in June at their end of the school year celebration.

“What I realized is that I planted a seed. Those students will go through life and they’ll have ups and downs,” he says. “But maybe years from now when they’re going through something in life, they might remember our talk and say, ‘hey, I think I know how to pull myself up out of here.’”

And as for fatherhood, Oliver says it’s one of the greatest lessons of all.

Oliver with his two sons

“Fatherhood has given me answers that I needed from within myself. I had a fear of death for so long, but as I witnessed my child being born, I saw how helpless he was. I realized that I just witnessed a miracle,” he says. “Sometimes as humans I think we tend to forget the miracles that are right in front of us and we focus on our fears. When I had my son, it allowed me to see that you can have some peace in life. My son was brave enough to be born. I can’t be scared to die.”

If you’re moved by Oliver’s story, please consider making a Father’s Day gift to buildOn today. Your donation will help support our transformational work, including our Adult Literacy Program which has already graduated more than 27,000 adult learners across 6 countries.