Education is Their Ticket to “Something More”

Another of my old newspaper articles (Linda Smith)

Adult Literacy

“I’m slow,” said Donna in a matter-of-fact tone. “I’ve always been slow. I can read and write, but I’m just not able to comprehend what I read very well.” Donna sat at a desk at the local tech school. Just moments before, Donna and her teacher, Eulalie Woeltjen, had their heads close together, focused upon the worksheet laid out before her.

It was a Wednesday night and six other students, pencils in hand, were hard at work on their own papers. Many of them, like the students of the old one-room school house, were at different levels of learning, beginning anywhere from kindergarten to the fifth grade.

Stopping at each desk, Mrs. Woeltjen made her way about the room, her voice always low and pleasant as she explained something the student did not understand. There was never a hint of impatience, because there was none. Mrs. Woeltjen understands, perhaps better than anyone, the courage it takes for these adults to even be there.

Donna’s troubles started at the very beginning – in elementary school. Never able to keep up, she struggled through the elementary grades and part of junior high school. She never did catch up. Becoming a dropout was inevitable. She gave up in the eighth grade. Haunted by self-doubt, inadequacy, and confusion, she turned to drugs for an answer. She didn’t find it there. Drugs only compounded an already insurmountable problem.

“I went back the next year because my mother asked me to,” she said. She was placed in tenth grade special education classes. Though they were small classes they still did not meet her needs. “In special education,” said Donna, “they want you to stay up with the class. And sometimes that’s not possible. Some people are just slower than others.”

Still not able to make it, Donna started hanging with the wrong crowd and skipping school. It wasn’t long before she left for good. Donna is now twenty-six years old and employed at Modern Industries. “They’re the ones who helped me get out here,” she said. “I’m progressing here. In this class I can take my own time. I can work at my own pace. I can go behind or I can go ahead. It’s up to me. I’m advancing at my own level. I don’t feel pressured.”

* * *

Larry has always wanted something more. He is a big man with strong, solid features. His hair is spotted with gray. His children are grown and his grandchildren are beginning another generation. He has attended the adult literacy class for three months, but finds it hard to verbalize his exact reasons for coming back for more basic education. He makes a good living as a brick mason and runs a barber shop on the side.

“In this class,” he said, “I understand a whole lot more. I want to go on and get my GED. That’s the ideal.” Larry has lived in Queensland most of his life and attended Queensland school. He dropped out in the tenth grade. About fifteen years ago he enrolled in a class at Linwood Elementary School, but attended only one month before he started to work in Atlanta.

Larry reads. He likes mystery books and the sports section of the newspaper. But it has been many years since the tenth grade, and he’s having to refresh his memory in what he already learned, and pick up where he left off.

“In this class I put more into it than I did before,” he said. “There’s a lot of different things I want to do. And when I get ready to do them, I don’t want the lack of an education to hold me back.”

* * *

Daisy wants to help her grandchildren with their homework. She keeps them in the afternoons when they get out of school. But her education ended with the eighth grade a long time ago, when she traded her dreams of a cap and gown for a wedding veil and gown of lace.

“All I wanted to do then was walk down that aisle!” she said forcefully, emphasizing the statement with a toss of her head. There was a sympathetic titter of laughter from other ladies in the room and a nodding of heads. Getting married was once the ultimate fulfillment of a woman’s ambition in life. When Daisy married in 1951, she could read and write and do basic math. In 1954 she began working, doing housekeeping and factory work.

“I still retain what I learned through the eighth grade,” she said proudly. “When I was going to school, what the teachers teach you, you don’t forget it. This class is refreshing my memory and it comes right back.” Her goal is to get her GED.

* * *
The young Hispanic student concentrated hard on the reading workbook in his hands. Across from him sat Mrs. Woeltjen, gently correcting his pronunciation and encouraging him as he read haltingly through several sentences.

Suddenly, he sat up straight and smiled broadly. “I got it now!” he exclaimed. When Mario came to the United States from Honduras he spoke very little English. He came alone and hired out for farm work as long as it lasted.

“They helped me find my job,” he said proudly, speaking of the farmers he had worked for. Mario, age 22, works in the Douglas Machine Shop in fabrications and says he has worked in welding before. His co-workers, employer, and the shop secretary, help and encourage him in increasing his English vocabulary.

Though he went to school in Honduras, and could read and write Spanish, it didn’t help him here. Then someone told him about the literacy class, and someone else offered to provide transportation. In the two weeks he has been attending, Mario says he has learned “a lot more”. Bilingual volunteer, Jose Guardia, comes to the class to help Spanish-speaking students get over some of the humps. At present there are two such students.

“It is hard to learn English and work,” said Mario. But I like this class. I want to keep coming back.”

* * *
I finished my interviews and said good-bye to Mrs. Woeltjen and Debbie Wilson, teacher of the GED Prep Class, who had joined us. Outside, Mario stood in the white glow of the security light looking at my car.

“This is your car?” he asked
“Yes.”
I will buy a car soon,” he said.
Then he walked off into the darkness to wait for his ride.