Ralph, 41 at the time of this interview, was a student at The Literacy Project’s Pioneer Valley Adult Education Center in Northampton. Raised in Florence, MA, he now lives in South Hadley with his wife. His goal is to get his GED and graduate from cooking school, before he turns 50.
I was an out-of-control kid. I got into fights. Because the kids would call me stupid and I’d fight them after school. They sent me to a private school, and the teachers treated you like they’re all mighty and you’re down at the bottom of the ladder. And I didn’t like that too much. I got in fights with the teachers. I was taken out of school at 13 years old [by my parents]. Never forced to go back into school. Nothing.
I got a job at a recycling plant, because of my size. I was 295 pounds at 13. So they thought I was older. Do you know any other 13-year-old kid who has a job making $450 a week? What 13-year-old kid needs $450? He’s happy if he gets $10. Or $5. If I could reverse time and go back and be 13 again, I would stay in the school. I would never take myself out. I didn’t understand why [they] took me out.
My mother worked in a nursing home for nineteen, twenty years. My father worked in National Felt in Easthampton. He was the first one in when the door opened. He worked there for thirty-five, forty years. And I’d like to get in that number. My brother-in-law is my hero. He’s been at Hamilton Papers in Holyoke for going on almost thirty years. And he was sixteen, seventeen when he went in. I want to be one of them people. Proud to say I’ve had a job for twenty years, forty years. I don’t want to be known as a ball, bouncing job to job.
I’ve had all my life people calling me stupid because I didn’t know how to read. People calling me all different names because of my size. I’m 365 pounds. I’m a big guy. I lost a lot of jobs because I couldn’t read right, or I wasn’t fast enough. I had a couple of bosses call me slow. I had a job let me go ‘cause I moved too slow. I just want somebody who’s going to come in and say, “You move slow. That’s all right. If you move too fast, you could break things.” And when somebody says you move too slow, it makes me cry, one. I don’t care if anybody knows about that. And it makes me feel like I’m less than human. I’m a human being. I got feelings.
I don’t like people talking down to me. It gets me mad. Because before you got the job of an employer, you were the employee. You were in the same boat that I was. They talk down like you don’t have any smarts. Maybe I don’t have any smarts. But I do know how to talk to people and get my word across without talking down to them.
I’m not slow. I have a disorder of reading and math. Last week I helped my brother-in-law. His water pump broke on his truck. I never put a water pump in a truck, but I took over. Seven o’clock in the morning, I had the water pump out and the new one in at quarter to eight. Without reading the instructions. I don’t have to read the instructions. I look at the paper, look at the design, and I put it all together. He kept on thanking me because, one, I did the work, and, two, there was no leakage. I was so proud. But I don’t want to go through that anymore. I don’t mind doing stuff, but I want to know how to read.
I’ve been doing cleaning cars without reading for almost 29 years. The correct word is a professional detailer. I buff, wax, shampoo the whole car, make a dirty car look like it just came off the showroom. You got to know what kind of chemicals to use on a motor. You got to know what kind of chemicals to use on everything. 29 years, I’ve never had no complaints, thank God. But I second guess myself when I’m using chemicals. That’s what slows me down.
I finally told my wife after nine years that I have a reading disorder. She said, “Well, I’ll just help you out the best I can.” My wife is a very nice person. I’m not saying that because she’s married to me. She used to write the [job] applications out. But [now] I write the applications out, but I have her make sure I have spelt the word right. So she’s like my teacher, too. Having someone in my life, and having teachers understand me, is making it a lot easier to admit it. I admit it to people I talk to who don’t have anything to do with the classroom here.
[My wife] gets mad at me when I say I’m stupid. I get really upset when I can’t figure something out and just come out and say, “I’m stupid.” And man, that’s a mistake saying that around my wife. Because she knows I’m not. Streetwise, I’m a very smart guy. I can recognize a bologna artist. I’ve been around them a lot, and sometimes I have to be one. When I lived on the street for two years when I was sixteen, I had to realize who was telling the truth. The way you tell is the way I’m looking at you, I’m looking you right at the eyes. If somebody’s lying to you, they’ll just look all over the place. Well, I’m not a liar. I’ll tell you honestly that I love coming to this program.
I felt uncomfortable coming in the door, but after sitting down and talking to Lynne [Paju, Site Director], my teacher, I didn’t feel uncomfortable anymore. I felt at ease. The teachers are here to help you. They make you feel comfortable. I told Lynne one time, ‘I feel stupid.’ She said, “No, you’re not stupid. You have a reading disorder, and we’re here to help you.” When you come through that front door, the teacher and you are on the same level.
My wife has seen the progress of reading since I’ve been here. It got better. I read newspapers with my wife, and I try to read books. These people make it so relaxed. I got to come in to a relaxed area. [Learning is coming] a lot easier. Finding these classes… I’m not the loner. There’s other people with the same problems. It makes me feel a lot easier. And we get along and joke. But when it comes to working on a problem or writing something, there’s no joking about it. It’s all serious. After, we joke about it. Joking…reading…joking.
That’s a homemade tattoo. That’s my jail reminder. I spent almost four years in jail up in Northampton House of Correction. When you go to jail, the first thing you hear is: Slam. Click. That’s the prison door shutting behind you. You hear that 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Anytime I feel that I can get upset at someone and will end up getting into a fight, I hear that. And it calms you right now. I’ve been out of trouble since ’86. It’s 2005. That’s a long time.
I don’t miss the rowdiness. I’m married. I’m old. Rowdiness is gone. I fish a lot. And my number one partner in my fishing is my wife. Took me two years to teach her how to cast a line. And she’s actually a little bit better than I am. When I go fishing I don’t think about schooling, I don’t think about my family, I think about my wife and me having a good time. That’s our escape. We seen deer, foxes, bears, moose, everything up the Quabbin. It’s God’s country.
I got a grandson, two and a half months old, yesterday. He’s going to come up and say, “Grandpa, read me this story.” I want to read the story to him. It’s going to be great to sit in a rocker and just read him the story and rock.