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Personal Stories

My First Day in Adult Basic Education

By: Dan Danforth

When I walked into the classroom, I could smell the chalk - the chalk that always seemed to trigger moments of fear. I could feel the words of teachers past pummeling me with their anger and expressing disappointment in my performance. I knew that feeling. In school the teachers would look at me and then look at the ceiling, as if there were some magic inscription written there that explained my total lack of involvement in the class. The school bells still ring through my head and send a tingle through my whole being. I am forever locked in a world where education equals pain.

Why am I here? Why would I walk into this place that seems so tortuous? I have to. I have to because I am lost in a sea of small jobs. I have to because the society will not see me as someone worth investing in. I have to because there is no hope, no future. In spite of the pain and feelings of uselessness, inadequacy and failure, I am here to confront my demons. I wish that it were not so. I wish that my ways of knowing would be recognized as valuable. I wish that the aching in my soul could be quenched in any other way. I am here.

The desks, at least, are tables. I don't have to wiggle into a green desk with a maple top that has scribbling proclaiming that ER loves SJ and a small indentation for a pencil at the upper edge. The chairs have cloth covers. I don't have to look forward to the constant wriggling to forestall the "numb-bum syndrome."

I see a teacher's desk tucked in the corner with the usual "teacher's stuff" - pens, papers, pictures of children, books and a sense of occupancy. This is a desk like those I sat at for many years explaining myself to various teachers. This is a desk where suspensions, expulsions, reprimands were meted out to me in an effort to get me to "behave." I knew this place as hostile and unpleasant. I feared it as much as the chalkiness of the air. Beyond this desk, I also saw the blackboards. The blackboards where my name was often inscribed as not turning in homework - emblazoned on the board for all to see my incompetence. The boards are empty now. Nothing there. Will it start again?

Other students enter the room. Some are nervously glancing about. Some are chattering to each other. Some are taking seats and staking out territory. I spy a seat near the back where I won't have anyone staring through the back of my head. A seat where people will have to turn completely around to look and laugh at me. A seat where I may escape the glare of the teacher and shrink into the wall - a speck of dust to be ignored.

The teacher enters. The teacher looks like all teachers. She has a sensible dress and sensible shoes and sensible hair. I feel myself gulping for air. I am back in the hell and torture. She speaks. She introduces herself. She hands out a piece of paper with the requirements for the class. She laughs. She makes a small joke. She asks us to interview someone in the class and introduce them to the rest of the class. I look at this woman beside me. She has long brown hair and a shy manner. She tells me she has been out of school for twelve years and has three children aged 3, 5 and 7. She tells me that her husband is gone and she must support herself and her kids. She speaks of the very fears that I have been agonizing over. I relate my story of fear and failure and endless jobs. She nods. She gets it. She knows. When the introductions occur, I hear my story echoed by the others. I feel the weight of anonymity lifting from my shoulders. I study the face of this teacher for disapproval. There is none. She nods. She knows. She understands. I begin to feel the chalkiness disappear.

The teacher hands me a book. I open it and scan the first few pages. Ahh… this is also what I remember — the words seem to scramble together. The teacher stops and points at the words. She tells me, "It is OK not to understand. This is the first time you have seen some of these words. Use your finger and point to each word saying it aloud in your head." She tells me that I may have a learning disability and she will arrange to have me tested. She tells me that I am OK and that I can learn.

I feel calm. Maybe I have found someone who understands. Maybe I am in a place where my past will not haunt me. Maybe I am experiencing hope.

Dan Danforth

Program Head, Basic Education ESL/Literacy Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) Wascana Campus SK, Canada Ph: 306 798-5002

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