Man who learned to read in prison aged 32 graduates with honours degree

Cork man Timmy Long spent the last eight years pursuing his education, graduating from Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) this month with an honours degree in construction management.

Timmy Long, right, with his brother Tommy at home in Churchfield, Cork. File picture: Eddie O'Hare

A Cork man who learned to read in prison at the age of 32 and later found out he has severe dyslexia has become the first in his family to graduate from college.

Timmy Long has spent the last eight years pursuing his education, graduating from Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) this month with an honours degree in construction management.

An early school leaver, his journey with education began while in prison, where he learned the alphabet and the months of the year before going on to sit the equivalent of his Junior Cert.

“These are things I didn’t know going into education at the age of 32,” he told the Irish Examiner.

It was hard [at first]. You’re learning things that kids learn when they are six inside in school but I knew that I needed to educate myself.

“Because being educated would mean that I wouldn’t have to go back to the old life I had, that crime was a massive part of.” 

Today, Mr Long co-hosts 'The Two Norries' podcast along with James Leonard, where they discuss social issues, mental health, addiction, recovery, and trauma. 

As a child, Mr Long struggled with school. 

“I didn’t have too much of an education because when I was in school initially. I wasn’t able to learn. There was too much stuff going on at home, I had no attention going to school. 

“There was definitely something up with me as well but back in the '80s, you were never diagnosed with anything. You were just classified as a ‘disruptive child’ and kept on your own at the back of the class.” 

“I could barely read. Pictures were my understanding of what was going on. In a newspaper, I’d be able to read, maybe, the headline.

My journey with education really started in prison. I started in the prison school, doing the equivalent of my Junior Cert and from there, I just kept going.

After falling into addictions, Mr Long found himself in prison where he completed a Fetac Level 3 and Level 4, as well as his Leaving Cert. He also completed different personal development courses.

“When I got out of prison then, I went to St John’s Central College and did a Fetac Level 5, and a Fetac Level 6. I was there for two years and I also finished my trade.” 

“After finishing my Level 6 in St John’s College, I just decided to maybe give third-level education a go,” Mr Long said.

“I started in CIT in a course called craft technology with business, which was a carpentry and joinery course. I like practical-based models, it takes you away from the academic stuff and gives you a breather to enjoy something, be more mindful and then go back and hit the academic stuff again.

“I did two years of that course in CIT and I was able to bridge over then into the honours degree in construction management at Level 8.” 

A helpful assessment 

During his second year of college, Mr Long was assessed by an educational psychologist. 

From this assessment, he found out he has severe dyslexia.

“That assessment really helped me a lot, on a personal level to understand why I didn’t understand things like everybody else,” he said.

“There were some words I couldn’t understand, I was very forgetful, in general. 

It just made a lot more sense to me. After I got this examination by the psychologist, it was like ‘Phew, right that’s the problem now, there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not stupid. I have a disability, which is dyslexia'.

"And that's it. I just continued on, kept plugging away and doing what I had to do.

“My work ethic was second to none. I wasn’t the smartest but I’d work really, really hard. I’d work really long days and long nights.” 

Along with his class, he graduated from CIT at the beginning of November with an online graduation ceremony.

“I was a little bit gutted it was online but it's like everything else in life, it's just the way things are at the moment. Hopefully down the line, maybe we can do it again, where they can bring us all back.

“I wanted my kids to be sitting in the front row watching their dad. I am the first in my family to go to college, none of my family or I finished school. I’m the first one to actually go to college and get a degree.

“So it's a massive deal for me on a personal level to show my kids and teach them that college is the next step in life if they want to go down that road.” 

Support network

Mr Long credits his wife Nicole for her support throughout his return to education. 

"With me, I had this kind of mechanism that I built up as a child. The minute something came that would make me anxious, or that I didn’t understand, it was like a brick wall.

"I would lose any form of thought, my logic would be just gone out the window and I would go completely blank. I carried that into my adult life. I used to be hitting these walls a lot.

When I'd struggle and I'd say it to my wife, she'd say 'keep going, you're after getting this far, keep going''. I just kept pushing forward and I started getting a bit of confidence in myself. 

"I was passing all my exams, and I was doing well and the lecturers were happy with me. That voice in my head that said 'you're never going to get this, you're not smart enough', that started to slow down a bit because I was after proving to myself that I could do it. 

"I was never the top of the class, but I was always the guy who'd work really hard to figure things out. There were some great people in CIT who were very helpful to me, including some fantastic lecturers. Without them, I probably wouldn't have done as well as I did."