A California ex-convict has become an internet sensation and motivational speaker for sharing his journey of overcoming illiteracy after a rough past.
Oliver James, 35, grew up in a low-income Pennsylvania neighborhood and graduated high school without ever knowing how to read, he told the Washington Post.
“No one ever told me there was a reason to take school seriously,” he explained. “It was just a place I had to be.”
Oliver James kept it a secret that most of his life he couldn’t read. Now he shares his literacy progress on TikTok to inspire others. https://t.co/KWa3pyNh4X
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) December 29, 2023
James recounted how after being suspended for getting into trouble in the first grade, he fell far behind his peers and continued to move up to the next grades without ever learning how to read a sentence.
According to James, “I couldn’t read like the other kids. They were so far ahead,” which set him up for a hard life ahead.
Until quite recently, James was functionally illiterate. He knew some simple words, but it heavily hindered his career. Now, he has made a name for himself and helped others by being open about his story of learning how to read.
“I didn’t know how to maneuver around the world normally; I always had to do things like a person who doesn’t know how to read,” he said.
He was only able to hold onto odd jobs for a couple of weeks at a time, with even entry-level positions such as busing tables or bartending giving him trouble as he could not read menus, street signs, or text messages.
James was ashamed that he had to rely on voice dictation tools to scrape by, so he kept it a secret.
“I would just lie, lie, lie, lie,” he said. Eventually, the lies caught up to him, his bosses found out the truth about his illiteracy, and he lost his jobs.
Soon after he somehow managed to graduate from high school in 2006, his mother’s apartment caught on fire, which left him homeless for a year. Unable to hold a steady job or continue his education, James says he got caught up with some bad people and made decisions that landed him in prison for more than four years on weapons charges.
“I was very ignorant,” he told the Post. “I was a kid, so I didn’t understand the consequences of doing that type of stuff.”
When he was released at age 26, he attempted to get his life together but was still hindered by his lack of reading skills.
James tried to start a career as a personal trainer but quickly realized “my passion was not in fitness.”
It was 2020 when the ex-convict decided to ignore the shame and get serious about learning how to read.
“I can’t have a kid until I read,” he remembered telling himself. “I realized this is my time to figure out what I can do to grow.”
Living with his partner, Anne Halkias, in Orange County, California, he began to read with her help. James had hidden his illiteracy even from her at one point, so this was a big step.
His first book was I.C. Robledo’s 365 Quotes to Live Your Life By.
“I would read the same quote for a week,” James said. “It was really hard.”
Though it was tough, he gradually got the hang of it.
After a few months of practice, James was reading full-length books, starting with shorter stories and then moving up to novels.
“There’s nothing that compares to reading,” he said, adding that reading became a means of therapy for his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“When I couldn’t read, I couldn’t help myself.”
The National Center for Education Statistics found that 43 million U.S. adults possess low literacy skills, with 8.4 million designated as “functionally illiterate.”
As his reading improved, Halkias suggested that James begin chronicling his journey on social media to show others what is possible with practice and hard work.
“What’s up! I can’t read,” he candidly opened one 2022 video, without expectations that it would reach so far.
He continued to open up, sharing how he suffered from abuse as a child and struggled to learn at school with his mental health issues that were not being addressed.
As he went on to post more videos documenting the books he was reading and trips to the library, James blew up online. He gained hundreds of thousands of followers, wrote a story for Newsweek, made the local news, appeared on the Jennifer Hudson Show, and much more.
As his presence grew, so did his reading skills. James became a motivational speaker at schools and literacy organizations and now considers himself to be reading at a fifth-grade level and still improving.
James also achieved his goal of becoming a father and now has a one-year-old son with his loving partner.
“It feels like I found my purpose,” he told the Post. “I’m finally contributing to the world.”
Out of the 100 books he has read in 2023, he said his favorites have been Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements.
His most recent novel, landing him at his goal of 100 books in 2023, was Holes by Louis Sachar. He shared videos of himself reading it aloud.
BOOK 100. pic.twitter.com/OfJlmCtTvW
— Oliver James (@oliverspeaks1) December 27, 2023
The avid reader also received the 2023 Barbara Bush National Literacy Honors Award in October.
“I went from being a person who didn’t know how to read to a person who is now getting awards,” James said.
“These are things that I never thought I could do.”
After accomplishing his dream of literacy, James can only go up.
“The world is totally different now,” he said. “It’s everything I ever wanted.”