David, 54, attended classes at The Literacy Project in Northampton in the early ‘90s. He served as a volunteer tutor and student health liaison. He is grateful to The Literacy Project for “opening the door” to spirituality for him.
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.
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.” My father was smart but had no heart, I don’t think. And he would buy me books – buy me the biggest Webster dictionary, a book on all kinds of education, and he would tell me, “If you can read something, you can understand it.” The point was - I couldn’t read.
He told me one day, he says, “You know, in order to be a good thief, a criminal, a good thief and a liar, you have to have a good memory.” So as a child, I started wondering, “Well, what does that mean?” And then I said, “Is he a thief?” So I started developing this…[really good memory] to troubleshoot my angles with him, so I wouldn’t get… You know what I mean?
But the thing that bothered me as a child, 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, “Well, what’s that say?” And he would literally scream at me, “You son of a bitch, you can’t read the goddamn 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.
But then my stepmother from Germany, she was amazed. She would take time to work with me. This is where I knew I wasn’t an idiot. She said, “Christ’s sake, you could speak in German better than you can English!” So she would nurture me that way, but it was like a hidden thing.
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.
In Connecticut, I was always in Special Ed’s class and [the principal] would never pick on me. I remember, he took some concern. We were always in mischief, and he would literally paddle you back there with a ping pong paddle. There would be a lineup in his office. He’d go right down the line and he’d save me for last and he wouldn’t paddle me. He’d sit down and ask what was going on at home. He really cared.
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 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. I just felt…well, I was surprised.
I was in a lot of trouble, so they put me in, like, a CC Camp – like a reform school. And what they did is they said it was all kids with behavior [problems]…all the kids were just like me – all the guys I grew up with. So what they did is they took us and they put us out in this park – town park in Norwich, which is beautiful. We lived in tents. We took care of the whole place. We did all the parks, the animals, the zoo, built bridges. But then they had to go to school, too. They had teachers there, counselors, and they worked 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.
So then, I wanted to learn. And the [military] said “You got a photographic memory.” I had a chance to excel, but I was too afraid. When I got over to ‘Nam, I didn’t want to stay in the [front lines] all the time, and then I found out with my photographic memory and running radios, I was good at it. So that’s what [I] did. Radios and infantry, truck driver, munitions experts.
So I remember 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.
[I always worked.] I worked on boats – merchant marine. Commercial fishing. Carpentry. Landscaping, gardening. Tile setter by trade. Mostly construction trade – painting, all that kind of stuff. [With my father,] renovated a lot of early American homes in Stonington Village. He had some good skills. That kind of work, and then cooking I did.
That’s one thing I was always taught –because I come from that generation – you work. Even as a kid, I shined shoes for 35 cents. I carried luggage from the train to the ferry. I picked weeds for 75 cents an hour. I had my own little banking account. No matter what, throughout my life I found work. I wasn’t afraid to work – whether it was cleaning toilets; it didn’t matter, I would work. I had a hard time with people telling me they couldn’t find work. I says, “Well, you’re not looking hard enough.” If you want to eat, you find some work.
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. And I went down to see the Voc guy and he says “Write me something here.” 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 shit 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 still cheated. Because it wasn’t in me. It was like a secret.
And somehow I stumbled across The Literacy [Project]…I think I was walking by because I lived around the corner from it. The Literacy Project is special to me. It’s like family, community. I can get mushy on this one. That’s what I love about The [Literacy] Project. Everybody was equal, and working with other people, instead of just me and my drill sergeant…
I tapped into this thing on [Native American] spirituality. It kind of opened up a new door for me. Something opened my heart with that. I find when I step out of that [spiritual path], I’m totally out of my mind. But when I’m in that, with pureness of heart, everything’s okay.
And 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’m content. I can be of more use in this creation, in this community to help others.
And I really believe in my heart, it’s time for me to be heard. I wish there was just a world where people didn’t judge each other. I wish the whole world was (laughing)…on a recovery project. There’s little pockets of it all over the place. I work with a guy they say would 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 [The Literacy Project] 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.
"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.” …The point was - I couldn’t read."