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For the first time in his life, Ralph Burns can walk into a restaurant and actually order from a menu.
That’s because, thanks to the help of one very patient tutor, the 64-year-old Tennessean can finally read.
“It’s opened up a new world for me,” said the musician and retired painter.
After meeting every Tuesday for two hours a week with his literacy teacher for the past year and a half, Burns can read enough simple words to understand road signs.
He can identify items displayed on grocery shelves or at the deli counter. And he no longer has to rely on servers to help him when he eats out.
“I can go into a restaurant now and look at a menu and I can see what they got,” he said. “I can almost figure out a lot on the menu now.”
Burns attributes his illiteracy to a rough childhood.
“I was abandoned from a child. They gave me away and another guy raised me,” he said. “He sent me to school, but they couldn’t learn me. They just let me sleep in school and they wouldn’t teach me or nothing.”
Instead, he said some of his teachers often hired him to mow their lawns or run other chores around their home. That stopped when he was 14.
“I quit school and gone on my own. And I learned a skill and I started making money,” he said, referring to painting. “It’s hard to go anywhere without an education, but I had a lot of common sense.”
He also worked on farms and in steel mills over the years. The only constant in his life has been playing music. He said he’s played the guitar since he was 5, and continues to perform at bars, weddings and charity events.
About four years ago, a church friend referred him to Friends of Literacy, a downtown Knoxville organization that paired him up with a volunteer tutor.
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After struggling with his first few tutors, he eventually linked up with Sydney Osborne, 49, who took Burns back to basics, beginning with the alphabet.
“Sydney, I’m telling you right now, that girl can teach," he said. "Before her, I couldn’t read nothing. Nothing.”
They worked on phonics and understanding the difference between consonants and vowels.
“I treated him as if he were a first day kindergartner," Osborne said. "At first he was a little reticent, but it didn’t take long to hit it off, really."
“He’s a very sweet guy. We have lots of fun."
Burns now reads at a first grade level. He has been working with Osborne on books, including the Dr. Seuss classic “Green Eggs and Ham," which initially took him six hours to finish. He can now complete the book in less than 15 minutes.
Burns said he’s spent his entire life compensating for his inability to read by observing people.
“I’d go into a store and I’d be hungry, so I’d watch what people do and say. I’d say, ‘How much does this stuff cost’ or ‘Is this good to eat?’” he said.
“I’d walk into a place like Cracker Barrel and I’d say, ‘What’s the special? What do you recommend?’ That’s how I got around in life. Ain’t that something?”
But Burns said he now feels more power over parts of his life he couldn't control.
"It’s still slow, I’m still building blocks. I’m still climbing, but Sydney said she’s not going to stop teaching me," he said. "She said I’m very intelligent and I’m very smart. I can do anything, I don’t care what it is."