Ben, 50 at the time of this interview, is a student at The Literacy Project in Greenfield, studying for his GED. A chef at a local restaurant, cooking is his passion. He hopes to take culinary courses in the future.
[I grew up in] East Hawley, which is 21 miles outside of Greenfield - a small little hill town, where everybody knew your name, and you couldn’t get in trouble because everybody knew what you were doin’ and where you were going. It was important for my father to send us to school and we were happy to go to school. We had ta’ make sure we had our homework done at a certain time every night and we were in bed and ready for school the next morning.
My father died when I was ten. I lived with my grandparents and there were thirteen of us so [school] was, yah’ know, like not really an issue. [The teachers] knew I came from a rough family. In my situation, they just kinda, yah’ know, they didn’t expect as much out of me as they did other students… So I just kind of sat in the back.
I gotta admit I always had fun in the school because school wasn’t really school . I wasn’t forced to do anything but be myself - and that was easy. It was just my dyslexia, I guess, would be the main thing [that interfered]. They didn’t even know about [dyslexia] when I was growing up. So they just kinda’, “Oh yah’ you’re all right, you’re just a slow learner,” and they moved me on, and on, and on. I made it all the way up until the eleventh grade until I quit school.
They must’ve [known I couldn’t read]. Yeah, I turned in my homework, but half of it was wrong. I know it was. But I mean, I made it on the honor roll a couple a times. I just kept on going! I don’t know how I made it as far as I did without knowing what I know now. I don’t know. It hurt. It hurt me. Yah’ know, I was sittin’ in the back of the class and I’d just do what I wanted to do for the [class], and nobody cared.
I think toward like the tenth and eleventh grade was hardest for me because I knew I was gonna’ be graduating and I knew I couldn’t read and write, and I was wondering what I could do with a diploma that was… that I really didn’t deserve or earn.
I hid it well. I hid it really well. Even when I married my wife, she didn’t know right away that I couldn’t read or write.
Memory. I relied on my memory. I never picked up a book to sit down and read. I signed my name and you know, other than that I handled cash all the time at the banks. If I had a bill, I went and paid it in person so I wouldn’t have to write addresses or names, or anything. Memory… all memory.
I’m a line cook. I’ve always been a cook since 1975. When I figured out I could read orders better than I could read a book, that’s when I decided that’s what I was gonna do with my life. It made me proud and made me wanna do the best I can do with that field. Can’t say I ever had a bad job cause’ I’ve always taken a job and said, “100%, no matter good, bad or indifferent.”
Over the last ten years I’ve come [to The Literacy Project] like six or seven different times. I heard about Louise [the director] and how nice she was to work with. So I figured that I’d try it here. I’ve tried it on my own at home with tapes and it just wasn’t working. The first time I walked through here in this building it was… I talked to Louise and she put me in a night group with a bunch of guys that were about my same age. I felt more comfortable. [I was] nervous at first and then more calm as the night went on. And now I look forward to coming every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night. I like the sociability of the class and the people, the teachers, and the tutors. They’re there to help you and you don’t feel like you’re inconveniencing them if you don’t know. It’s a nice group! We all help each other, so it’s like a team effort.
Louise pours her heart and soul into this building. Yah know, she asks for respect, she gets respect. She deserves respect because she treats everybody equally. She really does care how you are doing. Not how just, “Alright, are you gonna’ graduate or aren’t you gonna graduate?” She cares about what you’re feeling. She gives you the tools to learn to do what you wanna’ do with your life. She makes you feel good about your life.
I’m a little more focused on what my goals are now than I was when I was younger. I literally want to learn now. And I didn’t then. I really got into the habit of liking to learn and wanting to learn more.
[My goal is] ta’ learn as much as possible. [I want] to learn to read a little better. I mean sometimes it’s hectic after working all day, but it’s something I can look forward to, just relaxing and doing what I need to do, for me. [It’s] tiresome sometimes, but it’s worth it. Yea, it’s worth it in the long run.
It’s a great place and if anybody needs to learn, this is the place to do it. It really is. The teachers and the people are really focused on helping you in your situation and what you need to do to better your life. Not their own. Yah’ know, it just makes you feel good. It really does.
I might take a few courses in college, if I feel like I can do it at my age. That’s what I’m thinking. I would like to own my own restaurant. Something that I could open up early in the morning and close in the afternoon, just enough to make a living. I feel better prepared now than I did then. Yea, anything is a possibility now.