Two LaGuardia Community College basic skills students, who both returned to school after a long hiatus to become voracious learners and budding writers, recently won New York City writing contests for literacy students.
John Douglas, 31, who dropped out of school at the age of 9 in his native Guyana, was a winner in two city-wide writing contests—Selected Shorts: All Write!, through Symphony Space, and The Literacy Review, through the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Nelcy Ramirez, 31, was a winner of The Literacy Review program.
John, one of 11 children, left school and started working when his parents separated in order to help his mother support the family. He went on to become a professional boxer and even competed in the 1996 Olympics, but he did not know how to read or write. Permanently moving to the U. S. in 1998, it was his wife, an author of children’s books, who began doing research on literacy programs and directed her husband to LaGuardia.
“She said I’m too smart to not know how to read or write,” said John.
Miriam Fisher, the class teacher, agreed and took a chance on John, though initially she thought he may need a more remedial class. “This is what happened with the chance she took,” he said.
Nelcy immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at the age of 10. Up until this point, she had had no formal education. Once here, she was enrolled in junior high school but spent much time in the hospital, where she had surgery to alleviate symptoms from her cerebral palsy. While she was able to learn English, she admits that she graduated from high school without knowing how to read or write. Once she started working, she began to notice how her illiteracy was holding her back from achieving professional and personal goals.
“I saw all the things my coworkers could do. I said, ‘I have to get back into school,’ ” Nelcy said.
Both John and Nelcy found themselves in LaGuardia’s New Readers course, an Adult Basic Education Level 1 class for those with 0 – 2.9 reading level and possibly a learning disability. After several years of tremendous dedication and hard work, and at the urging of their teacher, Ms. Fisher, they submitted written pieces to the writing contests. Out of hundreds of submissions to each contest, both were among the small number of winners.
And they’re not stopping there. Nelcy currently works as a translator and has just bought her own home. She plans to continue her studies in college and explains that though she will study for a practical career that “pays the bills,” she hopes to find a way to write professionally as well. “That’s my passion,” she noted. “I’m trying my best to handle both work and my education. It’s difficult and challenging, but I’m up for it.”
John said he is still learning but is more confident. His future plans include taking the GED exam and hopefully continuing on to college. “I want to understand things,” he explained. “I’m a brave person, but it’s hard when you don’t know how to read or write, and you’re so scared people will find out. I want to get over that fear.” Another writer in the making, John asserted, “I want to be the best writer in the world!”
“It’s thrilling,” said Ms. Fischer. “It’s a triumph for students who struggle so much with learning difficulties to have written a piece that others appreciate and acknowledge. It’s a sign that they’re moving ahead in their lives, reaching goals and are part of larger literary community that they had been excluded from.”