26 Sep 2023

Man who learned to read and write in his late 50s becomes an author

12:04 pm on 26 September 2023
Michael Kingpotiki

Michael Kingpotiki with his book, A Journey Towards Literacy. Photo: Supplied

An Invercargill council worker says a desire to read to his grandchildren inspired him to put his hand up, admit he was illiterate and begin learning to read and write in his late 50s.

Three years later the former farm manager has written a book - A Journey Towards Literacy - proving it is never too late to learn.

During a 40-year farming career in the deep south, Michael Kingpotiki devised an elaborate bag of tricks to hide the fact that he could not read.

"I told little white lies: 'Oh, I didn't bring my glasses.' That's how I got around a lot of things. I didn't tell the truth to people.

"I was embarrassed of myself, and if they knew that I couldn't read or write what were they going to do? Would they fire me or tell me there was no more job for me?

"I was scared of that, so I told a lot of white lies."

His wife Margaret did the farm paperwork while he wrestled with his demons.

"I didn't have the courage or the guts to tell people I couldn't read or write. For me, it took a lot of encouragement to come forward and say, 'Hey, I put my hand up - I can't read or write.' It's been a fighting battle with myself, actually."

Then Kingpotiki, who now drove tractors for the Invercargill City Council, had an epiphany.

"After watching my grandchildren getting read to by my wife, I thought, 'I would like to do that one day,' and I started to say 'it's never too late'.

"So yeah, the journey started about three years ago, and the three years has been challenging, it's been tough. It's been head-banging, if you can say that, but little by little it's been getting better and better."

Retired teacher Linda Davies - who volunteered for the Rural Youth and Adult Literacy Trust - took Kingpotiki under her wing.

"He was a gem. Very, very shy, very self-conscious, but he was just so willing, so willing to work."

Based in Kaipara, she said it was very rarely a matter of intelligence for those who had not learned to read and write.

"You've got to be super smart to get by. Michael, for example, has every drivers' licence you can think of.

"But to get his first licence for his motorbike and his car, his brother read - for a whole year - read him the road code at night, and it was from the road code - knowing it verbatim - that he got his licence."

For the past three years Davies had met with Kingpotiki online up to four times a week, and now considered him a family friend.

"A lot of people who come to us think it's a quick fix but it's not. It's a long journey, changing they way they are.

"I mean, Michael would read and make a mistake and then he would say 'sorry'. And just convincing [him] that he didn't have to say 'sorry', just move on, that's all right, you know, and he doesn't do that any more."

Kingpotiki said he could not have achieved what he had without Davies' help.

"If it wasn't for Linda I wouldn't be talking to you, how's that? She's been amazing, that's one lady that should have a medal put on her any day. She's been a big rock in my life."

He said when he had reached out for help at school, he had been knocked back.

"I went to a teacher once and said, 'Could you teach me to read? Because I really want to learn to read,' And the teacher said, 'Nah, it's too late for you, you're too old.'

"So, I left school when I was 14. Getting told at 12 years old you're too old to learn to read just put a big ding in my whole life. I figured to myself I wasn't meant to read, so I didn't worry about it."

But it led to a life of shame.

"It was bloody lonely, to be honest. I felt dumb all the time. I know it sounds silly, but I thought people who wore glasses were more intelligent than me because they were getting glasses so they could read. So, I felt dumb most of my life. I wasn't part of the group."

Journey towards becoming an author

Kingpotiki said A Journey Towards Literacy began as a writing exercise.

"It was good exercise to spell and find the words I wanted to use, and I said to Linda, 'Let's do something like that.' It was good practice. And that practice turned into telling my life story, but it was only meant to be a practice and see how it goes."

It turned into a self-published picture book to share with his family, which covered growing up in the deep south, his relationship with his father and what he got up to as a teenager, as well as his literacy journey.

He had a simple message for those struggling with literacy.

"Take the first step, put your hand up, go and talk to somebody. It's never too late to learn. If I can learn at 57 - and I'm 61 this year - it's never too late."

And he was nervously starting to read to his grandchildren.

"I'm starting to, yes, I'm starting to. I need more confidence in myself, but that will come with time. But my grandchildren are good, they're lovely kids."

A not-for-profit organisation, the Rural Youth and Adult Literacy Trust catered for about 80 clients similar to Kingpotiki across New Zealand.

A 2020 Education Hub report revealed that by the age of 15, 35 percent of New Zealand teenagers struggled to read and write.

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