John, 44 at the time of this interview, attended The Literacy Project’s Pioneer Valley Adult Education Center in Northampton. Here, he reflects on having a family and coming back to school after many years of “living on the street.”
I don’t remember too much about kindergarten or first grade, you know. It was hard for me. I didn’t comprehend like every other student in the class. People can write down faster than I could. Do the math better than I could. And we have a spelling test. The teachers throw it out, instead of handing it back to me. I think that was in the third grade.
They found out I had a learning disability. They asked for a psychiatrist to see what level you’re at. You have to look at eight blocks. They’d give you little colored blocks, red and white. You had to make certain patterns of them. I could make a couple of patterns. But the other patterns were hard. Then you have to connect the dots. Or you had to write a little story. I hadn’t learned any spelling, and my writing wasn’t good, and I couldn’t comprehend anything else. And I had a speech problem. I couldn’t say the letter ‘l.’ And I would talk too fast.
It was rough, you know. People picked on you because you got a speech problem, stuttering problem, learning problem. People picked on you because you were like – like an outsider. So that’s why I grew up fighting a lot. That’s why I’ve shied off from people. You could say I was a loner.
I think I completed tenth grade. My parents asked me if I wanted to continue going to school. I said, “I’m quitting.” You’re around the streets, hanging out all hours of the night. Causing chaos. Looking for trouble. That was my education. Street education.
After I left [school], we went to try to make a better life. My father decided we would go to Puerto Rico, this is the way to get a better life. But we got over there – it was chaos. My father was an alcoholic. Instead of staying to find a job, he hit the bottle. [When] I was growing up, he was drinking on the weekends. But then he got ill, he got sick, and so he started drinking more.
When I come back from Puerto Rico, I was about 15 or 16, and I started hitting the streets. And that’s where I lived for about 25 years. In and out, going here, working here, not keeping a job, not having a good education, no diploma. You just get the job you can get, you know, like cutting grass, raking leaves, cleaning stuff. That’s the only kind of job I could get.
I met this woman, I thought maybe I can settle down. She was about seventeen, I was about nineteen. We had a daughter together. Then a year later we have another daughter. And instead of settling down, I was on the streets, back on the streets again. I couldn’t get a job, so I started selling drugs. To keep the family going. Then she wouldn’t have me. She wanted to be free. So she dropped off my daughter at my mother’s, gave my mother custody. Put the other one in the foster home. I couldn’t supply for my daughter what I can’t supply for myself. So I gave her up, too, to foster care.
At the time, I didn’t know if I was a good father or a bad father. I was too much on alcohol and drugs. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. So the best for me there – I put the girls in homes and pray that they could get involved and they could get what I couldn’t get from my parents. What my parents couldn’t give to me, I couldn’t give to my daughters. Only thing I could give to my daughters was to learn how to run the streets. And I didn’t want them to end up like I was. So I decided to put them in a foster home, so that way they could get adopted to some decent parents.
I got myself in the run with the law. I got picked up for a controlled substance. Cocaine. I did 100 hours community service. Get up every morning, every Saturday morning for like three or four hours. Clean the streets, pick up the garbage on the sidewalks, down in the park. See you on the back of the dump trunk, everybody in town see you.
I moved up here from New York State. My brother got married, so he decided to move the family up here. So I moved up here a year later. I lived in Northampton Lodges for about eight months. Then I moved in with my sister’s ex and his son. And he was coming here, too, at The Literacy Project. And we were talking about it, “You know, maybe you could go to school.” And, “Let me think about it.” Because I didn’t know anybody. So I decided. I made an appointment. I went in there, took the intake. To see how my reading level was. And when I went in there, it was not so hot. So I came to the morning class. I’ve been there…it’s almost about five years.
The first few years, it was rocky for me. After so many years on the streets, and then coming in the door, not knowing anything. You come off the streets, from New York, to try to live in a new area, new town, you don’t know anybody… Trying to learn the math, reading. It was hard for me. For a guy who had no reading, no skills, just street wise. And then staying here, coming to school every day, it was rough.
What I know now, it’s a miracle. It’s amazing. Six years sober. I’m still here. I’m trying to get my GED. I got a lot of work to do, still a lot of work. Still have a lot of work on math. So next practice test, I want to try for my reading and writing, see how far I came on that one. I made a lot of progress.
[I‘d like to] work with other people. A counselor or something. Because I been through a lot. Someone who’s going through it now, like I went through – maybe help them out before it’s too late. Because all my siblings, we all was like that. But everybody decided to get straightened out. My brother, my sister… We’re all doing okay today, by the grace of God.
I got married. This is the first time I got married in my life. I got married. My wife [and I,] we both go to school together. We both want to get our GEDs. Try to be better parents. She’s been through a lot, too. She was from the same town I’m from. She came looking for me.
[Our son,] he’s a beautiful kid. Beautiful kid. I love the guy. A little wise, but he’s smart. He’s smart. He loves school. He loves doing more work. He loves it. I wish I knew when I was six years old what he knows today.
[I’m] trying to be a husband and a father at the same time. In the beginning, it was rough. Because you know, nobody teaches you how to be a parent, how to be a father. But you know what? It was okay. It is okay today. I can say we love each other. I can be a husband, a father, a friend, an uncle, a brother, today.