Imagine going about your everyday life–working, driving, shopping–without being able to read. It seems unfathomable, but that was life for 71-year-old New Fairfield resident Joe Carmignani until this last year.
A custodian at Schaghticoke Middle School in New Milford, Carmignani was inspired to read by two sixth grade teachers at the school, Kim Patella and Christine Cahalane, whom he had opened up to about his illiteracy. An English teacher, Kim Patella encouraged him to seek out Literacy Volunteers on the Green, a vibrant literacy program in New Milford.
Though he initially had cold feet, Carmignani ultimately overcame his fears and sought out the program in early 2016. He soon began weekly, hour and a half long sessions with volunteer Pat Landry. Every Wednesday, Landry and Carmignani began meeting at NF Library to pour over the alphabet, landing the basics before beginning to slowly string words together.
Born and raised in Danbury, Carmignani explained how he was marginalized and shuffled through the education system. An atypical student, Carmignani learned at early age to “get by with common sense.” While other children were learning to read, he learned to listen and watch for cues around him. A wall between him and the world, Carmignani likened his inability to understand the English alphabet to someone “trying to read Russian or Chinese” who was unfamiliar with them. He also noted that he suffered with anger management, “I would get mad a lot because I couldn’t read. I would yell.”
As an adult, his wife of 44 years, Joan, helped him to handle anything that would need to be read or written. She would also help him navigate while driving, which he would memorize for future reference. Of his remarkable accomplishment, Carmignani remarks “She doesn’t say much, but I know she’s proud.” He notes that the two have worked together to shape a successful life, despite barriers such as the illiteracy, relying on the aforementioned common sense to, among other ventures, pay off a 30-year mortgage in just 8 years.
Heaping on the praise, Cahalane said of Carmignani, “It took an incredible amount of courage to begin to read at age 70! Joe is the most courageous person I have ever met. I knew he could learn to read, but for Joe, it was like a miracle. He made the miracle happen. He put his fears aside and took that huge first step. From there, he worked incredibly hard and his confidence and enthusiasm for learning grew. His progress has been amazing. I am incredibly proud of him.”
Her colleague, Kim Patella, says “I have known Joe for just a few years, but I have noticed a huge change in his mindset since he discovered the world of reading. He is more confident, social, laughs more. He is a role model for all who believe they can’t learn something new.”
Carmignani gratefully describes his tutor Pat Landry, “She’s my friend. She tries very hard to help me and she doesn’t give up.” Describing how much he appreciates the way that she’s straight with him, Carmignani says “If she sees I’m not doing it right, she tells me.”
Inspired by watching Carmignani and Landry at work, Margaret Golden, Assistant Library Director, said “I walked over to them one day to say that I thought what they were doing was amazing.” She hopes that his story will “inspire many people to do the same efforts.”
Though given the keys to start reading, Carmignani humbly noted that he isn’t ready to pick up a novel, but that was never truly the goal. “I didn’t really want to read a book, I just wanted to read a menu.”
In addition to the menus at local diners, Carmignani is appreciating beginning to be able to absorb instruction manuals for various home repair projects, he’s finding what he feels to be a large number of superfluous road signs to be humorous, and he’s enjoying watching the game show Wheel of Fortune when he has the time.
He went on to say about reading that “I still have a hard time. I will always have a hard time.” But his story is punctuated by the grit found in a quote by George Bernard Shaw that has great meaning to Carmignani, one that his colleagues at Schaghticoke had framed for him, that reads, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
By Sarah Opdahl