A Family Affair: Written off? Not my mum

Sue Torr was a 38-year-old dinner lady in her children's school when she realised that her illiteracy was starting to damage her relationship with her family. She joined an adult literacy course and wrote an autobiographical play, `Shout It Out', which is still being performed nationally nine years later and has earned her an MBE. Sue's daughter, Tanya, 28, works as a sales assistant and lives near her mother in Plymouth
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Sue's story

Even my wedding day was ruined by my illiteracy. I couldn't spell my full name and shook terribly at the thought of having to write it on the register. My only choice was to copy the shapes of the letters on to the palm of my hand before the ceremony, praying hard that I'd be able discreetly to reproduce them.

Ironically, it was also because of my illiteracy that I was there at all. I'd realised soon after leaving school that I couldn't get a job because I couldn't get past the application form and saw marriage as the only way out.

This kind of fear is the worst part of not being able to read or write. It's not that I thought I was stupid. It's just that I know literacy is how other people most commonly measure intelligence. I had to keep it hidden at all costs. In fact, 13 years after my wedding, when my husband and I separated, he still didn't know. Nor did our three kids. I'd do things like stand with a pen poised over a recipe book, willing them to pick things out for dinner. Then, when they'd gone to work and school, I'd put the pen down and take the book to the supermarket and point to the words. "Got any of this?" I'd ask. "Oh yes, madam, the butter's over there." I'd also pretend to read books to the kids. It made me feel so guilty constantly lying.

Whenever I was close to getting caught out - which could be as much as several times a week - it was appaling. My mother-in-law, for instance, would come round and ask what was on TV. I'd pick up the newspaper and pretend to look. "Just rubbish," I'd answer. But she'd persist and I'd have a panic attack - I had one every time words were an issue and ran upstairs.

As the children got older, I became desperate. I'd got used to the terror of entering banks for fear of being asked to fill out a form, of entering restaurants for fear of being handed a menu, and of being given directions with road names. But when the kids brought home reports that I couldn't read and when they needed help with their homework that I couldn't give, it broke my heart. My fragile state of mind, I think, was why Tanya, then 13, went to live with her dad when we divorced.

Nine years ago, I realised I couldn't take it any longer. I was a dinner lady at my son's school and was pretending to read a book to a class. "You don't know what that says, do you, Miss?" a little girl said and I just shook my head. It was the first time I'd been honest.

A month later, I'd plucked up the guts to see an adult-education officer. I can still remember my joy at reading my first sentence. I couldn't believe I'd done it. I had the same reaction to writing. So my tutor suggested I jotted down everything you can't do when you can't read.

A local theatre guy said I should turn it into a play. The first time we performed it, I walked straight off stage. After a while I was acting in theatres, prisons, on the radio and for an adult-education video.

These days, I tend to show the play in schools. And I can almost guarantee that at least one parent admits that their life has been destroyed by not being able to read or write.

Tanya's story

In hindsight, I can't believe I didn't realise that mum was illiterate. She might have looked as though she was reading the Ladybird book of Little Red Riding Hood to us, but her version involved there being gin in the little girl's basket and the grandma being beaten up by her. It just wasn't quite the same rendition that my other friends seemed to know and love.

Although we joke about that now, there's no doubt her problem also had serious effects on us children. We never went on school trips because she couldn't fill the forms in and didn't want to admit it to our Dad. Nor did we get any encouragement for doing all our homework.

We used to get in terrible trouble at school when an illness meant we needed to be excused from a lesson or a whole day.

"Where's the letter from your mum?" the teacher would ask. "She phoned in," I'd reply. But that was never good enough. They insisted on needing it in writing.

Mum was always tense and constantly busy which I now know was so that she always had an excuse to say: "Oh, I haven't got time to read this or write that at the moment. Can you do it instead?"

When I was 13 and my parents separated I decided I couldn't live with her. In fairness, it was also to do with location and that I was a rebellious teenager. But mum had reached a lower point than ever. And because I didn't know what caused it, I didn't understand it.

I wrote to mum a lot after that. I'd look forward to her replies but I could never understand what they said. Now I realise she must have gone through hell trying to write to me. I don't even know how she'd have read mine. Knowing her, she'd have said to a friend, "Oh, Tanya's written. Read it to me while I do the dishes, so I can hear it again."

So when I came to Plymouth for good, five years ago, I couldn't believe how much my mum had changed. She's so determined to help other people with problems. I really admire her.

The most astounding part of it all for me , is watching her with my six-year-old daughter, Jasmine, when they read books together. Because mum has only learned to read fairly recently herself, they are totally on the same wavelength and so she can help Jasmine in a way no other adult can.

The rest of our family just steps back in amazement.