Odell, 19 at the time of this interview, was a student at The Literacy Project's North Quabbin classroom. He was also a participant in the BEST Program, a youth job training program for culinary arts. Odell moved to Orange, MA when he was 16. Here, he reflects on coming back to school to study for the GED, moving from the city to a small town, and the importance of writing in his life.
I’ve been going [to the North Quabbin Adult Education Center] for a long time. Maybe two years, three years, something like that. Because I figured out I needed to do something with my life. I needed to make drastic changes. There’s no life in sitting on the corner boasting. You know what I mean? There’s no life at all.
[High] school was hard for me because I didn’t understand a lot of things that were going on. Like, “Hey, come after school and do some extra work.” I always thought they were just trying to make me stay after school. I was taking everything negative that they were trying to give to me. I didn’t understand a lot of the work that they were pushing at me. It’s not because I didn’t understand, it’s because I chose not to understand. You know, I chose not to.
They didn’t understand my talents. They were looking at the bad things that I did, and not realizing the good things, or my changes. When I used to draw graffiti and do all that, everyone was like, “That’s a bad thing. Why don’t you just take your time and do something else with it?” Now, Adult Education Center, they look at my stuff and they’re like, “Well, not everyone can get up and start writing. Not everyone can get up and start drawing. Not everyone can.” You know what I mean? They understand my part of talent.
When I first started going [back] to school, I didn’t have any faith for myself. I had no faith. Now that you guys are pushing me – not so much pushing me, but helping me, doing all this, doing all that – it helped me out to realize that it’s not everyone out in the world is out to get you. There’s a lot of people that do actually want to help you. I love that school. You know, it’s not every day you wake up and you have somewhere to go, and you know there’s going to be some people that understand you, or understand what you’re thinking, or just in general, understand.
[Learning] became easy, honestly, when I started cooking. Because I’m a cook. I love to cook. Anything and everything. Just give me some food, throw it in my face, it’s cooked. And it became really fun when everybody started throwing up ideas. When everybody wanted to get down on it. When everybody wanted to help out. You know what I mean? When we all stuck together. It’s not fun when you have one person doing everything at that. It’s fun when you have a lot of ideas, mix and match, when it’s not a bunch of obstacles you have to jump through. Basically, more minds is better than one.
I notice a change in me. I’m not really as stupid as I used to be. Now I actually think about things before I go and do it. When I was coming up, that’s when I was doing all my grime. I was selling all my drugs. Now I don’t want to have any kids and have [people] saying, “Oh, I knew your Dad, he used to do this and he used to do that.” No. You know what I mean? No. And I used to be real grimy. Know what I mean? And I don’t want my kids to be like, “Well, if you could do it, I can do it.” No. No. No.
I don’t want to [end up in jail]. I’m bigger than that now. I’m better than that. I did that. That’s one thing and one thing only that I can honestly say that I’m afraid of, you know. I can’t put myself in someone else’s hands that really is just looking at me as a convict.
I never experienced racism until I moved to Orange, Massachusetts, 01364. Never. There’s no words to even explain it. It was in school, on the street, on my job, everywhere. Everywhere. This one dude at my job, he tried telling me, he said, “You’re lucky you’ve worked here this long.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, most people like you don’t last in these types of jobs.” It’s a factory, you know. The majority are white people. I said, “What do you mean?” “Well, most Spanish people that come here, it’s more white people here and they don’t last.” So he tried switching up the race-type, but I knew he was talking about me. I says, “You know what, the race thing doesn’t matter.” Next thing you know, next day I got fired.
Okay, now, I was in school. This was when I was on the football team. I was a first string quarterback. This kid tries telling me, “You can’t throw the ball like that.” How are you going to tell me how I can throw a ball? You probably don’t even know how to spell…you know, I was joking around with him. And he took that – you know what I mean? So then, all of a sudden, the whole front row just moved out of the way and I got tackled. He told the whole row, move out of the way, let me get tackled. And it was all white people. Come on. That doesn’t happen. You’re supposed to be a team. It’s not white and black team. It’s one team. Everyone as one. I just didn’t know what to say. I’m laying on the ground looking up, like, “That’s messed up, that’s messed up.” He goes, “Next time you got to listen to white people.” But he said it in a different way. I went and told the coach. The coach said, “There’s nothing I can do about it. You wasn’t running fast enough.” And there was more times than that. It just gets me.
Basically to keep my sanity I write all the time. It helps me, it helps me relax and look at things from different points of views. You know, when I write, I can easily erase something that I said, or I can erase something that I did, that I’m saying about. When I’m angry and stuff I can’t snuff you in the face and then erase it and say sorry and we’re friends again. No. You know. No.
I [love to] rap and – as you guys want to call it – ‘write poems.’ When I moved to Orange, it was disappointing. Because it was so much more smaller than I’m used to. When I write and stuff, I have nothing to write about. Well, when I was in the city, there was a lot of different things you can write about. A lot of different things you can see, a lot of different things you can experience. Like, one, you ain’t gonna be sitting around rapping about, “Oh, I had to walk about a half a mile, just to catch the bus, to get to my friend’s house.” You know, down there, it’s just like, anything can happen, from when you leave your house, you walk down the street, catch the train, catch the bus, anything…
It’s good for my little sisters. It’s good for my little brother. It probably would have been good for me, too, when I was younger. There are places to go get your peace and quiet, your mind back together. Like, one being the GED Adult Education Center.
There’s no future in Orange. Nothing. Nothing at all…You can’t start off around here without knowing somebody, or having something. Money makes the world go ‘round… You can think of a million ways to make money, but you can’t when you’re out here.