In my work, I encounter extraordinary people all the time and often our paths cross in moments of great upheaval and change.
They’re heading off to war. They’re starting a new business. They’re fighting for a cause they believe will make the world a better place. Sometimes they’re heading to prison or losing elections.
Times of change are when life gets interesting, right?
When I met David King a month or so ago, he told me with great candor about his particular journey, learning to read for the first time in his late forties.
“We were the retards,” he recalled, describing his childhood in the northern Champlain Valley.
People had labeled David all his life: Retard, simple, slow. “I felt like, like, you know, how can I fix myself?”
With the help of a group called Literacy Volunteers of Clinton County, David had begun using children’s books and word games to overcome his learning disability.
For a journalist, it is a blessing and a privilege when someone is willing to speak openly about such painful and complex things.
And in our long conversations, in person and on the phone, David showed just how agile his mind was. He told stories. He used language with incredible sophistication, describing a struggle and a hard life that would have stopped most of us in our tracks.
I speak of David in the past tense, because he died suddenly and without warning on June 17th, just a couple of weeks after my profile of him aired.
“Twice a week, David gifted us with his courage, tenacity and sincerity,” wrote Norma Menard, head of the Clinton County literacy program, in a note to NCPR.
“He was pleased that his story gained for us several new tutors and inspired fellow learners. I thank Peter and Hilarie [David's volunteer tutors] for the hope, dignity and joy that David felt with every story that he read for his grandchildren.”
One of the things you learn as a journalist is that things are never quite what they seem. There are layers to every life, every experience. There are always twists, ambiguities.
I had hoped to profile David over the next year or so, tracking his growth, his learning. Instead, it turns out I was catching a glimpse of him just at the very end of his life.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to real disappointment, true sadness.
In my story about David, I described how he held his children’s books in rough, workman’s hands. One hand had the word ‘hate’ tattooed across the knuckles.
My reporter’s instincts tell me there were a lot more stories there to be told, and David was just honest and courageous and fiery enough to want to tell them.
That won’t happen now. But I am glad and grateful that our paths crossed, at least for that moment.