Nobody's calling her birdbrain now: Sue Torr was illiterate, and ashamed. Now she can write, and has an award-winning play to prove it. Martin Whittaker reports

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Sue Torr, school dinner lady, recently turned up late for work. 'It was the first time I've ever been late in my life,' she says. 'I just completely forgot the time.'

She had good reason. That morning a television producer had come from London to her Plymouth council flat to talk about filming her play, Shout It Out. The play was performed on BBC Radio Devon last year. This April, it won Sue a Sony Radio Award for outstanding service to the community.

The award, the play, even the very fact that she was able to write it, has amazed Sue, 42 and a single mother-of-three. For most of her life she has been illiterate.

'I still can't believe the response I'm getting,' she says, her voice rounded with West Country vowels. 'I keep the Sony award on the mantelpiece but I'm terrified it'll get knocked off. My eldest son's going to make a little cabinet for it at school.'

Shout It Out is autobiographical. It tells of the shame and guilt that Sue endured for years because she could not read or write. She felt so embarrassed she tried to keep it secret, even from her husband.

'You live in fear,' she recalls. 'You get a twinge in your stomach every time reading is mentioned. It's this horrible gut feeling.'

Sue was brought up in Plymouth, one of eight children. Helping her to read and write was low on her parents' agenda. 'We had to look after each other. Mum was always working, cleaning or cooking. The last thing I did was bother her with, 'Mum, can you help me read something?' '

At school in the Sixties, she somehow slipped through the net. 'I was brilliant at games. But when it came to reading a book or writing things down, I just didn't bother. I reached the point when I was afraid to ask. I didn't want to trouble the teacher. I used to get called names like dunce, dimbo, birdbrain.'

She left at 15 with a reading age of seven, and took a job as a waitress. 'I'd go and ask another waitress what was on the menu. She'd say Dover sole or lamb, and I'd have to remember. I'd look at the menu and recognise D for Dover or L for lamb. I made a lot of mistakes. People would get soup instead of steak.'

At 18, Sue married a sailor. She recalls: 'When we were courting he used to write me lovely letters. I had a box I kept them all in. I'd get somebody else to read them for me. Then I'd pick my way through, alone. It would take hours.

'When he was on leave, he'd ask, 'Why don't you ever write to me?' I'd give him some excuse, like I was too busy. I was afraid to tell him the truth. I didn't want him to think I was a dunce.

'After a while I would get somebody else to write my letters for me and ask them to print it out so I could copy it letter by letter.'

She went to great lengths to keep her secret. If she had to use a chequebook while out shopping, she would stand outside, painstakingly copying the shop's name on to a cheque. Sue learnt to spell out figures from her young son's numbers book. But she only reached 13. 'I had to make sure I didn't spend more than 13. Anything over that I couldn't write out,' she says.

When her children Tanya and Glen, now 23 and 17, learnt to read, she felt a terrible guilt at not being able to help. 'If either of them asked me to spell a word, I'd say, 'I haven't got time, ask your dad.'

'It was something that was on my mind constantly, every day of my life. You're acting all the time, hoping no one gives you something to read. Whether my husband knew or not, I don't know. It was never talked about. He used to read fishing books. I used to sit looking at him sometimes and think, 'God, I wish I could read a book.' '

Her marriage broke up 10 years ago. Tanya went to live with her father. Then, in 1985, in her mid-thirties and in a new relationship, Sue unexpectedly became a mother again, when her son Brian - she calls him BJ - was born. The relationship with his father ended two years later.

Meanwhile, she started helping at BJ's nursery school. 'One day I was sat with a bunch of children, who were going through a book. One child asked me to help her. I sat there struggling with it and this little girl said, 'You can't read that word, can you, Miss?' I said, 'No, I can't' She said, 'But you're old. Why can't you read?' I felt terrible.'

Sue decided to do something about it. She talked to an adult education worker who visited the nursery school, and was encouraged to attend adult literacy classes. Progress was slow, but steady.

After three years of evening classes, the idea for the play came. 'My tutor asked me to write down everything you can't do if you can't read, write or spell. I kept writing and writing. My tutor would take it home. She more or less understood my writing and what I was trying to say. Then she'd type it out. We took it to the Mount Wise Writers' Group here in Plymouth and talked about it. Then the Theatre Royal got involved. They said, 'There's a play here.' '

Shout It Out was first performed by Sue herself and other members of the writers' group. Radio Devon then produced and broadcast the play, to launch last year's Adult Learners' Week.

Since then, Sue Torr has concentrated on giving talks to adult literacy groups and taking the play around schools. 'I was stunned to find 13-year-olds who still can't read. I'd say, 'Why don't you tell the teacher?' They'd say, 'Oh, he doesn't listen to me.' '

Sue admits that her own reading and writing has a long way to go, and is currently concentrating on punctuation. 'When I write it just comes out in one long string of words,' she says. 'But at least I can read BJ bedtime stories now.'

Sue is still supervising lunchtimes at Mount Wise Primary School. She recently heard a group of children chanting, 'If you can't read, you can't do it' - a line from Shout It Out. 'I thought, that's great,' she says. 'That means they're listening.'

(Photograph omitted)

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