Whipped by words: Alexandria resident named to national literacy councilA jar of mayonnaise changed Keith Norling’s life. That’s because it was supposed to be Miracle Whip. Shortly after Norling got married, his wife, Sheila, sent him to the grocery store to get some Miracle Whip.
By: Jo Colvin, Alexandria Echo Press
A jar of mayonnaise changed Keith Norling’s life. That’s because it was supposed to be Miracle Whip.
Shortly after Norling got married, his wife, Sheila, sent him to the grocery store to get some Miracle Whip.
“I brought home Hellman’s and that’s when the manure hit the fan,” said Norling, an Alexandria resident.
That accidental purchase revealed a deep secret. It was something Norling had struggled with, and been ashamed of, his entire life. He was scared to tell anyone – even his wife.
He couldn’t read.
At first his wife was upset with the news.
“First of all, she hates Hellman’s,” Norling joked, telling the story of his illiteracy.
Norling has few fond memories of school. Learning didn’t come easy, and he was physically and verbally abused because of it. He barely made it through school, graduating from Jefferson High School in 1974 – mostly through memorization, shop classes, and other “survival techniques.”
Few people knew of his inability to read.
“When you tell anyone, you feel like you are stupid, a dummy,” he said. “That was the biggest fear you had. I always hid my reading abilities.”
About a month after his wife found out, Norling started working with a tutor through the Alexandria Literacy Project (ALP). Stubborn, scared and with his self-esteem shaky, it was a slow process. It took him three years before he could sound out his first word.
“It was like you gave me a million dollars because I did it all by myself,” he recalled.
Norling attended learning sessions twice a week. He worked with his tutor for about 15 years, until she finally said, “You don’t need me anymore.”
Throughout the years, Norling worked at a tire business, eventually purchasing it himself as he learned how to read. For more than two years now he has been the groundskeeper at Knute Nelson in Alexandria.
Learning how to read had changed his life, and Norling wanted to show his gratitude. Three years ago, he went through training and became a tutor himself.
“That was my goal, to give back what they gave to me,” he said, adding that he has volunteered more than 1,000 hours so far. “It’s very rewarding.”
Norling’s commitment to the literacy program did not go unnoticed. Because of his hard work and determination, the coordinator of ALP nominated him for the Pro Literacy America Student Advisory Council. After in-depth interviews and a lengthy selection process, Norling found out in March that he had been chosen for the council.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or scream ‘Yahoo!’ ” he said proudly. “My heart dropped. I was overwhelmed. How much higher can a person go? This is national!”
Norling is one of only seven people throughout the U.S. named to the student advisory council. His job during the three-year term will be to bring information from Pro Literacy back to ALP, and conversely, to determine weaknesses in the literacy program here.
“We’re the go-between,” he explained.
Norling recently returned from a four-day conference in Washington, D.C., where he attended training sessions and lobbied at the White House.
Over the years, Norling has won several awards recognizing his reading achievements, but he considers them bittersweet.
“The awards are great,” he said. “But you’re not proud of them because you got them because you couldn’t read.”
Norling still struggles a bit with reading, and is continually trying to hone his skills by forcing himself to read.
“I have to push myself every day or I lose it,” he said.
And not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about how far he’s come.
“I have pride in myself for once. I had no idea what I could do or what I could conquer,” he concluded. “I’m at a loss for words.”
At least now he knows how to find those words.
He can read them.