• School was a nightmare for Makere, who features in SBS' new documentary 'Lost for Words'. (Nigel Wright)Source: Nigel Wright
"They think that because you can't read and write, you can't do certain things."
Zoe Victoria

16 Sep 2021 - 9:23 AM  UPDATED 16 Sep 2021 - 10:20 AM

"School was a nightmare."

Makere, a 35-year-old mother of two, is speaking to SBS Voices about her lifelong struggle with reading and writing. She is one of a group of eight adults featured in new SBS series, Lost for Words. The three-part series follows the group's journey to improve their literacy skills in a specially designed adult learning program.

Makere's literacy difficulties began during her school days. As she fell further and further behind her peers at school, her teachers began to give up on her.

"I always struggled. For example, I had the same teacher for a couple of years, and they would bring in baby puzzles so that I could sit there and do baby puzzles instead of doing the same work as the kids."

Eventually, the nuns who taught at her conservative Catholic school called a meeting with her mum.

"The nuns came in and they were like 'We can't teach her. You're going to have to send her up the road to the special needs school.' My mum was quite shocked because [with] everything else I'm okay but it's just the reading and writing." 

'We can't teach her. You're going to have to send her up the road to the special needs school.'

Over a decade since she finished school, Makere still faces people's shock when they find out that she can't read.

"I've lost jobs from bosses not knowing that I don't know how to read and write.

"They think that because you can't read and write, you can't do certain things."

Lost for Words takes that assumption and flips it on its head. Navigating the difficulties and stigma faced by those who have limited literacy skills with sensitivity and compassion, the series acknowledges the specific challenges of learning as an adult and highlights the judgement that participants need to overcome to improve their skills. 

That judgement was a huge obstacle for Makere in completing the program. "I was always the one that was laughed at," she tells SBS Voices. "So I was used to the embarrassment of learning."

But her biggest motivation to stick with the program were her kids. At the outset of the show, the group is asked to set a goal that they'd like to achieve by the end of the program. Makere explains that she'd like to be able to read chapter books.

"I would love to learn how to read a book to my kids and not struggle. That would be nice. When I read to my kids, you look at the picture, you make up a story."

But Makere has found that she can no longer get away with making up stories for her kids. "My seven-year-old, she can read now, so Mummy can't make up stories anymore.

"Also, a really lovely goal would be not dreading to do schoolwork with my child."

But we see Makere's desire to improve tested time and time again throughout her journey on the program. In a heart-wrenching scene during the first episode, she breaks down in tears while completing a literacy assessment. "I'm doing this 'cause I want to improve," she says. "I have to improve to set an example for my family, for my little ones."

Speaking to SBS Voices she reflects on her decision to persevere and continue to learn: "My whole experience of the program was up and down." At some points she says, "I honestly didn't want to do this program."

In a scene that see Makere face her fears head on, she joins award-winning children's author, Jackie French to learn how to read to her children.

At the mention of their meeting, Makere starts giggling - "Oh god!"

French, like Makere, has dyslexia and has overcome difficulties with writing and spelling to pursue a career in storytelling. But her enthusiastic expression while demonstrating how she reads to children was confronting for Makere. 

"I don't read like her. She's a lovely person, she's absolutely lovely but I don't have that sort of confidence." 

While she still doesn't have the confidence to read with the same level of enthusiasm as French, Makere says that she did learn some techniques to help keep her children more engaged when she reads to them.

Now, when she reads to her kids she can recognise; "Okay they're getting a bit lost in the book. I can bring them back into the book, do different expressions - that sort of stuff."

But the biggest change has come about in the way that she's able to supervise her daughter's homework.

Makere explains that before the program, she would make excuses and tell her daughter, "Maybe you should ask Dad". But being forced to supervise her daughter's work during lockdown has given her the opportunity to change that. 

"Before the program I would have just been like, 'Oh man, I'm stuck! What am I going to do here?'

"This time I'm sitting down...and you figure it out with her, and you learn together."

"It's Mum that does the schoolwork now, not Dad."

There's a hint of pride in her voice as she says, "It's Mum that does the schoolwork now, not Dad."

That pride is on full display at the conclusion of the three-part series which sees Makere and the group present speeches to their family and friends at their graduation ceremony from the program.

Visibly emotional, Makere tells the group; "I am a motivated person and I have achieved a lot, but in this part of my life I had just become complacent and accepted that this was the best I could do with my literacy skills."

As she receives her graduation results, Makere is shocked at her level of improvement.

"It shows that [with] the right support, teachers that are open to go through that struggle [and] figure out what's best for that student, it just shows it works. It's not a waste. 'Cause they could have given up on me, but they never gave up." 

Lost for Words premieres at 8.30pm on Wednesday 22 September on SBS and SBS On Demand.

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