Rock Brisson’s hands can tell a story.
They’re big, roughed-up and aged from years of painting; they once put a knife in Brisson’s stomach, and the only thing they know how to write is his name.
A week ago, Brisson sat at a desk between two piles of small, blue books in the community room of l’Association franco-yukonnaise.
Brisson was gracing his new book with his lifelong signature.
Brisson speaks slowly because of a stroke he suffered earlier in life. While he spoke, young girls and boys thanked him for the book reading, ate cake and grabbed a copy of his book to take home.
The book is 16 pages long and was written with the help of an interpreter. In a handful of chapters, it tells the story of his life.
The moment is joyous and inspiring because Brisson only learned to read in 2004. Today, he does work for the Yukon Literary Coalition as a speaker and, now, a writer.
But there have been darker days.
Brisson was born in Shawinigan, Quebec, in 1957. It’s the same town that former prime minister Jean Chretien credited with making him a tough street-fighter, one hard enough for political life.
Brisson went through 10 foster homes before he was 13.
He was hyperactive and inattentive at school.
And the rigidity of the education system made him pay for it.
Brisson was forever behind his classmates in learning to read and write. He was put in high school without having finished Grade 3.
He ended up leaving high school early because he sold liquor from his locker.
Hitting adulthood rid his life of some struggles, but it also created new ones.
Alcohol abuse was a mainstay in his life. Yet he found love, married and moved to High Level, Alberta.
In an English speaking world, he could mask his illiteracy with his accent.
“I’d been in Alberta, out West and out North since I was about 20 years old,” said Brisson. “I used to say I needed help with my English and people know that because I’ve got this big accent.”
It was an excuse to get clients to write their own bills and contracts.
How did he make sure the contracts weren’t unfair?
“I always look at the numbers,” he said. “I’m good with numbers.”
Just not so much with words.
A learning disability in his youth, coupled with a heart attack and a stroke later in life, made reading difficult and writing impossible.
Brisson first sought help in Alberta, but his troubles circled around him and tore his family apart. His wife asked for a divorce.
In a mad act of desperation, he stabbed himself in the stomach.
He moved to the Yukon to find stability for himself and his children.
But those heavy years of shame remained within him.
His son was developing similar learning disabilities.
“When I moved to Whitehorse, they put my daughter in school right away, and my son, because of his learning difficulty, they didn’t know which room to put him in,” said Brisson.
“He was starting to become a young man and he was becoming sick of the system, and then it was even harder for him to come up with the patience to do this,” he said.
But Brisson had some patience left in him.
After Yukon Learn told him they could not help his son because he was too young, Brisson made a move.
“Something clicked in my head, and my hand was on the door knob, and I said, “‘What about me? Can you help me?’”
They said, yes.
Brisson began receiving lessons and was told he should also learn to read and write in French, his mother tongue.
“I finally came (to l’Association franco-yukonnaise),” said Brisson. But he and his family didn’t go in right away.
Once again, his hand was on the door.
“We sat outside. I said, ‘Should I go in?’ That’s the shame of your life, and most people don’t know.” ”
His family in Quebec never knew until a year ago.
“I left, and I came back the next day. I said I had to do this,” said Brisson.
Brisson endured a year of tutoring. Tests revealed he had lost significant hearing in both ears and that his stroke had made it impossible to ever write.
But he could learn to read, and today he can read to a Grade 6 level.
Still, the learning phase wasn’t easy.
“By that time, I was so sick I couldn’t work,” said Brisson. “I worked for myself, my whole life for myself and I ended up on welfare.”
“Other people felt bad about social service, for me it was the best thing to ever happen to me,” he said.
Social Services helped co-ordinate a lot of his needs, and they helped him buy hearing aids.
Brisson returned to work.
“I run Northern Lights Painting and this summer I had 12 people working for me,” he said.
The dark cloud in his life had been the shame of feeling stupid, and it began to show its silver lining.
“It’s not because you can’t read that makes you not smart,” said Brisson. “But some of us think we’re not smart because we have this problem and we’re ashamed to talk to anybody about it.”
“That’s why I’m doing this,” he added, referring to the book he wrote.
Brisson’s aim is to offer his children a much more different world than the one he endured.
“In my time, you didn’t talk about (illiteracy), and I know a lot of people here in the Yukon who don’t know how to read and write,” he said.
“I spoke in a jail last year in Yellowknife, and I spoke to young offenders and you’d be surprised,” he said. “After I spoke in jail, there was a young fellow, about 20 years old, who didn’t know how to read and write. He was asking all kinds of questions.”
“Now today with all the technology, there’s no excuse for kids leaving school without learning to read or write.”
Brisson writes e-mails on his laptop using a voice-recognition program.
Reading has opened the door to using the phone book and the newspaper.
“When someone calls you and they talk too fast, you get the name but not the number,” he said. “Now I’m able to look up the name in the phone book.”
Illiterate people suffer from shame, he said. Keeping it hidden is what makes them reluctant about getting help.
“I never wrote, I never read my whole life,” he said. “Now I can read my own story.”
Brisson survived the shame to tell the story of his life.
In return, he’s given himself a new one.
And a new place to write his name.