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Growing up, he struggled to read. Then a young teacher saw his potential

Juleus Ghunta.
Juleus Ghunta
Juleus Ghunta.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

Juleus Ghunta is a published children's author and award-winning poet. But growing up, he could barely read.

Ghunta and his three siblings lived in a rural part of Western Jamaica. They were raised by a single mother, and she often had to make tough choices about how to use their limited resources — including a decision to send his oldest sister to school, and to keep Ghunta at home.

"Life was very difficult for us," he recalled.

When Ghunta finally went to school, he couldn't catch up on his reading skills. Not only had he been kept home from school as a child, he had not been exposed to books.

By the time he entered six grade, he could spell his name, but he still couldn't make out words, spell, or read with understanding. The situation was made worse by a series of teachers who made him feel worthless.

"Many of the teachers were not very patient, not very kind," he said.

"I struggled in school with a deep sense of loss and shame and humiliation."

When Ghunta was about 12, a young teacher-in-training decided to start a special reading program for struggling students. Ghunta was the first student to sign up. That teacher, whose name he does not recall, would become Ghunta's unsung hero — the person who changed his life.

"The teacher was incredibly kind to me," he sad. "She was patient. She was creative. She did not ask anything of me, except that I work hard and believe in myself."

Under her guidance, Ghunta's reading skills finally started to improve. And his sense of inadequacy began to lift.

"She had left me with the gift of literacy," he said. "And with a deeper appreciation of my personhood, and value as a human being."

After Ghunta's experience with the teacher, his life took a new direction. He graduated from elementary school with a number of academic awards, including one for "most improved in reading."

He went on to college, and later, graduate school. Today, he is the author of two children's books, including Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope, about overcoming difficult experiences in childhood. He's now working on his first full-length collection of poetry.

In 2010, Ghunta went back to his old school, to ask the principal and teachers if they knew his old teacher's name. But no one did. He still hopes to find her one day, so that he can tell her thank you for seeing his potential.

"I would love for her to see the significant impact that she has made on my life, and the ways in which I have carried this memory of her — the hope, the light, with me — and how it continues to be a source of joy."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Brigid McCarthy