Pat, 49 at the time of this interview, was a GED student at The Literacy Project’s Pioneer Valley Adult Education Center. She passed her GED and continued on to Greenfield Community College. She graduated with her Associate’s Degree in May 2005. She plans to continue on with her education.
(My mother) just abandoned us. She had custody and then she gave us up to my father, and he had a second wife. And then, supposedly, they were supposed to keep track of us. But when she came back to visit and found us not being taken care of, she just went and found somebody and just left us again. But she never told us. She just had someone else come in the house… and there was some kind of a parade. And I was outside and I asked, “Where was mommy?” And, “She’s in California.” “When is she coming back?” And, “Never.” And I remember the picture. I remember standing there. I remember the size of the child and I also know [that] the last time she saw me was around 3 ½…at that point, that time, and it was matter of fact. And then to me, California was the end of the earth.
From that point on, words were used to just hurt you. I mean, you never knew. It was “I love you,” but bam. You didn’t hear kind words, you weren’t encouraged. You were told you were worthless and when they did use a good word…I was molested by my father and, you know, “I love you.” So words still, they’re still very much a weapon. But I have taken them back and I’ve been using them. Learning to go ahead and write them. Learning that you have a right to write down anything you want to write, whether or not somebody likes it. Learning that you have power.
I didn’t have a good time in school and all. I was lucky – I didn’t get picked on by any kids. But we moved a lot, so I had a very hard time with even trusting some of the teachers. I had one teacher tell me that I owed him because he passed me. And I worked hard. I worked so hard for my grades and I’d get them and I did not pass, and I couldn’t understand.
I had to quit school at 16. My father did not believe in education. So I didn’t get to have after-school help. I did my homework if I could. I had to work at 14. So I quit on my 16th birthday. And I tried to go back to school when I was 18, night school, and that’s when they gave me the 2nd grade book and put me back with the vocabulary and stuff.
I could read, so people had no idea that I didn’t have a GED or a high school diploma. Anybody with an education was so intimidating. Luckily, I read a lot. But I didn’t consider that as being educating; I just did it. You know, wherever I was there was books; I had books in the car – always had a book on me. So I had learned things without realizing it. I was running a business and all that and was making money, but I had no other options. I couldn’t do anything else.
My brother had been a student [at The Literacy Project] and he had said, “Pat, you’ve got to go to this place.” So I put it off and I put it off and he kept mentioning it. And he goes, “You’ll enjoy it; it’s a great experience.” I says, “Bob, the last time I went to school, they gave me a 2nd grade book and put me in back of the class.” He goes, “Just try it; I’ll go with you.” So I says, “Okay, but if it doesn’t work out…” This was the last time. I was not gonna try to get my GED again. So the day came for me to go in. And my brother couldn’t make it.
So I pulled into the parking lot and I sat there, and I’m like “Oh God, can I do this?” And I got out, and then to open the door and take that first step in was, like, so hard! I was scared to death. Because I was sure of rejection or whatever. I didn’t know.
I remember my first goal was to get through high school – to get my GED – and within two weeks of starting The Literacy Project, I decided I could go to college; it was within two weeks. It just shocked the hell out of me because all of a sudden I was learning, and I’m like, “I can do this; I can go to college.”
These art classes and writing classes - they help something else grow. I had a rough childhood [with] a lot of different mothers. The third mother was very verbally [abusive]. I was having trouble in school, 4th grade. I couldn’t do symbols in math. And I couldn’t tell the difference of the sounds of the letters, and I had a little speech problem. I got my fourth birthday taken away – my 4th grade birthday. Nobody was allowed to say “Happy Birthday” because I got a bad grade on math. And I had this favorite yellow dress and I mean it was my…we didn’t get a lot of new clothes. Or I didn’t. I was given hand-me-downs. I was like the servant in the house. She didn’t like me, and she would just say, “I don’t know how you can stand it. If I was you, I would run away.” And she kept saying things like that, so I packed all my clothes in my little bags – sandwich bags…and I didn’t have a lot, apparently, because it fit all in a box. And I left my yellow dress behind so that they can give it to somebody else who deserved it.
And I never used yellow. I just never used it at all. No clothing – no nothing. Nothing with yellow was in my house at all. And I never even realized I didn’t put it on my kids, or anything, all those years until we were doing the art [at The Literacy Project]. And then I took back the color yellow and all. I started buying some things with yellow. A lot of my flowers are yellow in the yard. So I learned a lot in that little program, you know the art [class].
[Getting my GED] was so amazing. To know that I had this option. I finally had this piece of paper that says, “Now you have the choice” and you can do whatever you wanted. I mean, here I couldn’t even write a paragraph. It was like an hour to write a paragraph. And now – a 15-page paper is easy for me . 7-page, 8-page. I mean, I can write. And I have an ability to write stories that I never thought of, because it just come from inside. And all those years of not being able to put it on paper.
Now I have the option where I can take any class. I can learn anything and it connects up somewhere along the line of whatever you’ve learned. I just might become a professional student out there! Because I just want to learn everything; I just want to know everything. I never knew there was so much you could learn.
And having those choices. I have freedom. I mean, no matter what else, I have a freedom to use my mind and to learn whatever I want – and that’s a big freedom.