David, 54 at the time of this interview, attended classes at The Literacy Project’s Pioneer Valley Adult Education Center in Northampton. He later served as a volunteer tutor and student health educator.
When I was young, I went to a lot of schools, my father being in the military. He was in the Navy. He was out to sea, but we were up in New Hampshire, Maine, Key West, Florida, Connecticut. He retired as a Chief Senior Petty Officer. He left school early, too.
My father, he was such an angry man. If I tried to read studies and I couldn’t read, he would literally – and I’m not embarrassed to say this – he would slam my head on the table. He’d say, “You’re stupid.” So right away, fear is there; you’ve got to block.
We would be driving down the road and I’d see a billboard or a sign. Back then there was billboards everywhere. And I’d say, “What’s that say?” And he would literally scream at me, “You son of a !@#$%^&*, you can’t read the !@#$%^&* thing?” And I’d be so scared, I wouldn’t bother to ask him what anything was. So I tended to develop my own little world. And I literally didn’t read a book until I was in my 20s.
I was so afraid of him, I’d lie. It didn’t matter if I told the truth – nothing worked with him.
I used to get a lot of mixed messages from him. He used to tell me, “Be smart.” And he would buy me books – buy me the biggest Webster dictionary – and he would tell me, “If you can read something, you can understand it.” The point was - I couldn’t read.
I think in the ‘50s if they had any idea what dyslexia was about, it would have made a difference. Because if you were dyslexic – I didn’t even know I was and they didn’t even know back then.
I had a lot of problems as a kid and I just didn’t fit in. But I loved history and I loved, I guess you call it literature – poetry and theater and stuff like that. I loved it. My uncle would put on big productions way back then, so I grew up with all this stuff. I used to go to all the rehearsals and I’d sit down there. I liked the kettledrums and all the classical music and I was into it. It was like an escape for me – a good escape.
I was getting jealous of my sister because she was doing all this ballet, and I liked tapping. I could tap dance; I really can. I wanted to [do theater] but my father said, literally, that’s for sissies. My sister was into all those arts. And when I wanted to participate, “Oh, you can’t do that.” And I was just so angry, so… surprised.
I was in a lot of trouble, so they put me in, like, a reform school. It was all kids with behavior [problems]…all the kids were just like me. They had teachers there, counselors, and they worked with you. And they just said, “You’re not an idiot; you’re smart.” And that’s where I first found somebody that cared. And it was almost frightening.
[But then that program ended.] So I wanted to get my working papers to go to work – never mind school. I remember my father telling me, “You’ll be nothing but a ditch digger, a dish washer – get an education.” And I wouldn’t listen to him. And then after I got out, I wished I had listened.
This is how I got my GED. [After I came back from Vietnam], I was in a program for stress… and they sent me down to the Voc guy and they were saying that [I was] illiterate. And I was pissed because I could read. And I went down to see the Voc guy and he says “Write me something here.” [So I did.] And he says, “They said you can’t read or write. That’s bullshit.” So he says, “I’ll help you get your GED.” And that’s how he did it – by balancing off the ends. Did excellent in science, history, but math and a few others, I really bottomed out. But he helped me with the averages and then he kind of slid a slide curve in there. And he says, “All this !@#$%^&* you’ve been through in ‘Nam, you missed this by a couple of points. I’m gonna straighten this out. You earned your GED – real life experiences.” [So he passed me.] But I felt like I was cheated. Because it wasn’t in me. It was like a secret.
Somehow I stumbled across The Literacy [Project]…I think I was walking by because I lived around the corner from it. Basically, what I got from you guys is, you allowed me to be myself and follow my intuition, my hopes and dreams. And that opened up a door of spirituality for me. ‘Cause I find when I follow my intuition and I don’t go against that little gut feeling, I’m at peace. And I can be of more use in this creation, in this community, to help others.
The Literacy Project is special to me. It’s like family, community. I can get mushy on this one. Everybody was equal and working with other people, instead of just me and my drill sergeant… That’s what I love about The [Literacy] Project.
Now I work with a guy they say will never make it – 27 years in prison. I see something in him; I know he’ll make it if somebody gives him a chance. And that’s what you guys gave me. And that’s why I’ll never give up on nobody.
So if that’s where it’s at, to give love and service to help my fellow human being, and you all kinda opened that door for me – I want to thank you for that.