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According to his memoir, The Teacher Who Couldn't Read, John Corcoran graduated from college in 1961 and taught high school for 17 years, all without being able to read, write or spell. Finally, at age 48, he sought help and now serves as a public speaker and fierce advocate for literacy. The John Corcoran Foundation claims to have trained 300 tutors and tutored more than 2,000 students.

Perhaps Otis Mathis should look into that—or some other organization that’s devoted to adult literacy. Because as president of the Detroit Public Schools board, Mathis clearly needs help. A recent article in the Detroit News revealed his struggle to compose coherent English sentences that aren't rife with egregious errors of usage, punctuation and grammar. Under the headline, "Does DPS leader's writing send wrong message?" the article included portions of a recent e-mail Mathis sent to friends and supporters:

If you saw Sunday's Free Press that shown Robert Bobb the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, move Mark Twain to Boynton which have three times the number seats then students and was one of the reason's he gave for closing school to many empty seats.

And there’s this, from another mass e-mail:

Do DPS control the Foundation or outside group? If an outside group control the foundation, then what is DPS Board row with selection of is director? Our we mixing DPS and None DPS row's, and who is the watch dog?

Overall, I agree, although it's worth noting the strong support by Mathis' peers on the board, who elected him president by a 10-1 vote and praise his leadership skills. Placed in special education as a fourth-grader, Mathis was told in college that a learning disability was the cause of his atrocious writing. Now he sees himself as a role model for kids with similar conditions. He told WJBK-TV that, essentially, his critics "are telling me people with disability [sic] cannot be leaders."


No one wants to discourage struggling learners from aspiring to achieve, striving for success and endeavoring to excel. And don't be fooled: There's no inherent connection between literacy and natural intelligence. Being illiterate doesn't mean you're stupid. Mathis is reported to be a math whiz and a persuasive public speaker. He obviously has a lot of admirers on the board and in the community, despite his communication issues.

But … come on! He's got to do better! If he can't bring his writing skills up to an acceptable level for his position, then he should NEVER send out anything that hasn't been edited. His error-filled writing doesn't inspire students to improve; it suggests that writing doesn't matter.

Maybe Detroiters have a soft spot for Mathis, a native son who graduated from their beleaguered public school system. But virtually anyone else who produced writing like his and applied for such a position would be summarily dismissed before the competition began—and rightfully so.


Whatever Mathis brings to the table—and I'm sure he's a swell guy—there are others who could bring as much without butchering the written word. It’s embarrassing to have a school board president who writes so poorly, no matter the other qualities he possesses. If he became an adequate writer, too, he'd be a much better role model as a victory against disability. And I bet he can do it.

Otherwise, he needs to quit hitting the send button without supervision.

Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer based in Upper Marlboro, Md.


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