Art is a student at The Literacy Project in Amherst. Originally from Saint Croix, he moved to Northampton in 1972. He speaks about learning a trade as a child, and the struggles he faces as an adult who cannot read.
I’m from the Virgin Islands. My mother only had one child and my mother was sick. Because in the fifties when I was born, there wasn’t much nurses and doctors around, so she almost died birthing me. And she had, what you call, epilepsy. So meanwhile I was growing up, my folks had to get to work. So I had to stay at home to watch her, you know, because sometimes she have [seizures]– some days she don’t and some days she did. So I didn’t get to go to school like other kids. Most of what I learned was in church or Sunday School. So ask me anything about the Bible, I could tell you about that.
When I did get out there, it was learning a trade. So, to my feelings, a trade was the most important thing. For me to be a builder. So they sent me off at 12 years old to do that. And then I have to come back home and take the money back home to them.
[Learning a trade,] that’s the way you gonna learn. You have to work with someone, because you didn’t have a trade school like you had here. So you go with another guy to work, and then the other guy would teach you what he knows. I worked with a guy named George for like 2 months. I was working a dollar a day. He tell me I learned quick, time to go. I went to get a job. Back then, I was 12. I went in August, and January, I went and looked for a job. And then the guy told me – I was skinny – so the guy told me, he said, “You can’t pick up some cinder blocks and you can’t stones.” So I said, “You want to try me?” And he said, “No, I don’t think so.” So I’ve been back every morning, at 5:00 in the morning, because I lived in the country and I had to get to the city, about 15 miles. When the first cock crow, that’s about the time I’ll be going. So you wait until the rooster get up, and we call it crow, around 5:00 in the morning.
So I would go back to that guy. You see, I was persistent. And every morning. And then he said, “Hey, I tell you to go home!” I say, “I got a woman home sick.” He say, “What are you talking about, a woman?” I say, “Yeah, I got a woman home sick.” He said, “Who is that woman?” I say, “My mother.” And I say, “I need a job to help my mother.” And I remember his name right now, his name was Isaiah James. And he said to me, “Come back on Monday.”
So Monday I went back, and he say, “Where you learn your trade?” I said, “George James.” He said, “Well, that’s my great uncle. And if you learned a trade with him, I can hire you in a heartbeat.” So he said, “Don’t lie to me. Either you know my uncle or you don’t know my uncle.” I said, “You can ask him.” Well, we didn’t have telephones. So he said, “Well, I’ll see him Sunday and I’ll find out.” He did ask him, so when I went back Monday, he said, “You come over here.” That’s the way they used to pick you, you know. And that’s the way I get the job. He said, “Well, my uncle tells me you’re a good worker and a hard working guy and you’re quick to learn.” So that’s how I started out.
I worked for him a couple years. He’s a construction company… So I worked for him for about 3 and a half years or so. I was about 15. And then I went to work for a [hotel]. I started when I was about 15 or 16, I worked there until – it was ’72. Till I was 23. I was working at night as a bell boy, and then my half days I was working in the water sport, showing people how to snorkle. Tourists. ‘Cause in those days the island lived by tourists.
I work with a lot of people who don’t know that I can’t read and I can’t write up to now. I may say, “How do you spell that?” And one of the guys may spell it, and I catch it and that’s about it, you know? But to elevate yourself, you know, you always have to say, “Send somebody else,” and make an excuse that you can’t go, or excuse yourself at times, because you know this is a chance, there’s a chance for me, but you don’t want to embarrass yourself.
You’ve got a handicap when you can’t because so many opportunities pass you by. I’m not bragging, I’m the most skillful one in my job, but literally I can’t read to implement it. You understand? So, (brain-wise) everybody come to me but yet still I have to have the skill to move up the line. You know, I’m like, you know, blind and then get your sight. As you go by, as you go along, I got hold to what I could get.
A person who can’t read and write, his memory serves very well for he or her. Because my memory is very, like restored, ‘cause there are a lot of things that I do that just go from memory. You know that you’re really weak in this area and you get strong in that area.
The workplace is getting much harder [with computers], if you don’t have an education. Used to be a high school level. You have to have a college degree now. Like, one guy may say, someone on the job, “He should be making more than you.” And I know it, but he had what I don’t have. You always have to take a back seat. You know. You always have to take a backseat.
And when we go to the doctor’s office, you want to fill out your own doctor’s thing, and when you go to look for a job, you want to fill out your own application. Things like that. It hurts sometimes, but – you get depressed sometimes about it. You want to go over there. If I could do this, then I would be there.
I’d like to read something to my grandchildren. I didn’t have the opportunity to do that to my kids. Be able to read to them, and also to write a letter, instead of asking someone to write the letter for me.
[I’ve been trying to learn] since 19, maybe 20 years ago, started down with UMass. A student was doing that. And then they cut that program out. Then when it started up again they said they only have it for the workers at UMass at the time. Then I got into Casa Latina in Northampton, and then they ran out of funds at Casa Latina. And then I went to Springfield. And the guy told me that they’re going to close down and they’re without the funds. So everywhere I go, like, three weeks, a month, I always catch it at the tail end.
And so my wife, she was trying [to teach me], but her time – either she’s coming and I’m going. Anytime we really get to go is late at night and it didn’t work out. Most of the time we’re tired and she says this is not a good time because you can’t concentrate.
And then my wife, tell me about – she sees an ad in the paper – she works in Amherst. And that’s how I found out about here [the Amherst Adult Learning Center]. It’s great. They’re the best people. Well, like Michelle [Aguilar, Instructor] could tell you, I’ve improved a whole lot. A lot.
"I work with a lot of people who don’t know that I can’t read and I can’t write up to now. I may say, “How do you spell that?” And one of the guys may spell it, and I catch it and that’s about it, you know? "