The Resolve to Read
'Doors are open that you could never walk in.'
Every day, Greg Ritter sits at his kitchen table and reads his Bible — one of the few possessions saved from a house fire two years ago.
He enjoys several verses in the book’s worn, tattered pages, but John 5:24 is one of his favorites: “Verily, verily I say unto you, He who heareth my word and believeth in him that sent me hath everlasting life and shall not come unto condemnation, but is passed from death unto life.”
Today, Ritter believes he truly has God’s word at his fingers. A year ago, he wasn’t so sure. The 52-year-old Southern Pines resident couldn’t read his Bible, a newspaper or even a child’s book.
Ritter was illiterate.
He’s far from alone. In North Carolina and Moore County, roughly one in five adults lacks the basic reading and writing skills to function in daily life, according to the CASAS Adult Literacy Estimate.
Illiteracy is hard to notice, undetectable with a first glance or “hello.” Ritter is friendly, outgoing, energetic and always willing to help someone in need.
“My wife [Wanda] tells me all the time that I put everybody before Greg,” he says. “That’s just my nature. I care more about people that need. I got everything I need.”
But when it came to reading, Ritter realized almost two years ago that he had to put himself first.
“There’s so many things you can do by learning how to read,” he says. “Doors are open that you could never walk in. I have that dream.”
Since November 2010, Ritter has been receiving free tutoring at the Moore County Literacy Council. There, he and his tutor, Laura House, work together to improve his reading and writing.
By completing the Adult Basic Education Program there, he hopes he will have the necessary skills to earn a high school equivalency certificate that will open those doors to something better.
“I make myself happy,” Ritter says. “But inside, there’s a lot of things I want to do that I can’t do. And I think that one day, I’ll be able to do some of the things I want to do if I can just go ahead and get me a little bit of education. I’ve always heard you’re never too old to learn. Life is what you make it.”
Ritter blames no one but himself for his inability to read.
“I had great teachers,” he says. “It never just clicked over to me to go to school because all I had on my mind when I was young was that I was a farmer.”
He grew up on a farm in Robbins, where he has many memories of hunting with his dogs, baling hay and raising livestock with his father and extended family.
His father died when he was in the second grade, leaving his mother to raise nine children alone. He remembers the sacrifices she made for the family and growing up poor.
“I had a beautiful life,” Ritter says. “We ate every day. We had a place to sleep. Mama did what she could to take care of us.”
Ritter only went to school because his mother made him go. In class, he often got in trouble so he could be sent home.
He stayed in school to play sports once he reached the seventh grade. When he made the football, basketball and baseball teams, he did just enough to pass three subjects and remain eligible to play.
“Reading and English, I just didn’t do it,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for sports, I probably wouldn’t have cared about math and science and history either. That stuff just didn’t click for me.”
In the 10th grade at North Moore High School, he realized his reading and writing skills were so poor that he wouldn’t be able to catch up.
A month before graduation, Ritter dropped out of school to help support his family. He became a truck driver, traveling all over the U.S. making deliveries. He managed to read traffic signs and maps, but if he stopped at a restaurant to eat, “I could tell them that I wanted a cheeseburger, fries and a drink. It wasn’t worth a dime for me to look at that menu.”
Later as an employee at Perdue Farms, Ritter moved up in the company, but he soon realized he could only get so far. The employees he was training began to advance ahead of him and make more money.
“[My bosses] told me, ‘Greg, if you had your high school diploma, we could move you up the ladder,’” he says.
Another wake-up call came when his daughter Jasmine started school. He remembers the shame he felt when she would ask him to read to her.
“I could turn the pages,” he says. “Some of it I’d just make up. She didn’t know no better.”
“But in here,” he says pointing to his chest, “I was saying to myself, ‘Man, I wish I could read this book.’”
These were the confines of a life without literacy.
He tried enrolling in pre-GED classes at Sandhills Community College multiple times, but he quit when he couldn’t understand the material. Ritter was discouraged.
“[When you can’t read] you back away,” he says. “You can’t tell people you can’t read. You’re afraid because you think somebody’s going to laugh at you. Pride is the main thing, but you’ve got to swallow that pride. I just said I want to learn how to read.”
Discovering an Opportunity
Ritter had driven by the Literacy Council’s office in Ice House Square on Broad Street in Southern Pines several times, but he never realized that the key to a better future was there.
“I always looked at that sign, ‘Moore Literacy Council,’ but I didn’t have no idea what it meant,” he says. “That shows the little bit of reading I could do. I could have been going if I knew that’s what it was.”
Ritter found out about the tutoring by speaking to Rose Highland-Sharpe when she visited his church.
He called Pam Giambelluca, the Literacy Council’s program director, to get started.
To determine his reading level, Ritter took a series of tests on the office’s computers. In a few weeks, he was paired up with Laura House. The two got to work quickly, meeting five hours a week every Wednesday and Thursday. The minimum asked of students is one hour of study a week, both in tutoring and at home.
Each session, the two do drills, working on spelling, sounds and patterns of English, and finish up with some reading and writing.
“Learning to spell is like learning a language, because you’re learning the patterns and what the sounds are,” House says. “There are so many things that could frustrate a student, and [Greg] doesn't show his frustration."
The two also discovered that Ritter is a great writer. He has had a few written pieces published in the Literacy Council’s student newsletter.
Susan Sherard, the Literacy Council’s executive director, has watched many students discover the joy of reading over the years. She has also seen students overcome social stigma to seek services.
“There’s a real shame that is attached to being an adult and not knowing how to read and write,” she says. “Most people believe that they should be ashamed … Just the hurdle of acknowledging that you can’t read and write [is hard]. Meanwhile, you have managed to live a life. That is not stupidity. That is intelligence.
“The great thing about Greg is he obviously has a good enough sense of himself that he is free to just plunge ahead and try something. He seems less restricted than some in terms of what he’s willing to try, which serves him well in all ways.”
Last August, Ritter was recognized for his progress at a student awards dinner. Before a room full of students and tutors in the fellowship hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Ritter read a piece he had written about losing his first wife in a car accident and raising his infant daughter alone.
“I was so proud of him,” House says, remembering watching her student read aloud. “I was nervous for him because he had written this beautiful story, but it was very personal.”
Ritter chose the piece because he wanted to demonstrate how much he had learned.
“I felt overjoyed,” he says. “I was happy for Ms. Pam. I was happy for Ms. House, but most of all, I was happy for myself because I was standing up there reading. This is my chance to show the world what Greg Ritter can do.”
Finally Able to Help
In the months since, Ritter says there is more adventure in life through reading. He now knows the joy of reading to his 4-year-old granddaughter.
“I feel like a king,” he says of when the small child carefully climbs into “Paw Paw’s” lap with a book. “My whole heart feels like it’s about to explode because a year ago, I couldn’t have read her that book.”
Ritter also helps his 11-year-old son, Jackson, with his homework — something he couldn't do with his four older children.
“He tells me all the time, ‘Daddy, I’m glad you’re going back to school,’” Ritter says. “The whole family is proud of me. I feel better because my other kids are grown. I couldn’t help them, and now, I can help him with some of his stuff … That means a lot, just to be able and help him do his homework.”
After the holidays, life became complicated.
In the last four months, nine close family members died, and Ritter found difficulty focusing on his studies. He and House began meeting once a week, but eventually, Ritter stopped coming.
“Trying to comfort my family took all of my time,” Ritter says. “It’s just all different stuff. It’s not stuff that you plan. You just get lost.”
He also quit his job as a cook and janitor for the Boys and Girls Club of the Sandhills last month. He’s had a few promising job interviews since, but hasn’t found anything permanent.
Ritter still wants to earn his GED certificate. He is one step away from completing the Adult Basic Education Program at the Literacy Council, after which he can take pre-GED courses. He knows he has to get back to his studies to achieve his goals.
Sherard says Ritter’s situation is something she sees all too often with students — life gets in the way.
“There are some people who are just going to move in and out of education,” she says. “He might well be done. He might swing back through — that’s the way adult life is. I hope for the best.”
Though so much is uncertain, Ritter knows he’s better off now, knowing how to read and write.
As he sits at the head of his kitchen table, thumbing those worn pages of his Bible, Ritter is hopeful.
“I couldn’t read,” he says. “I couldn’t write. You go down [to the Literacy Council], they’ll teach you how to read and write. It opens up a whole new world.
“Now I feel like I can do anything. I know I can do a lot more that I couldn’t do. There’s nothing like being able to do for yourself, and that’s all I can say on that.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at (910) 693-2485 or hannah@thepilot. com.
To listen to Greg read a piece he wrote about a tragic event in his life, click here.
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