Never Too Late to Learn

Posted by Marisa Campain

Every now and then people have experiences that give their life a fresh sense of purpose, and I wanted to share one such experience from my time in Dallas: spending the last three years helping an elderly Salvadoran lady who never learned to read and write in her native language, Spanish.

I came to Dallas as a freshman determined to use and improve my Spanish. I had participated in a Spanish story time for bilingual children in high school, so my interest was immediately piqued when I found a “basic Spanish literacy tutor” volunteer position here at the local library. I expected to learn more about the program before I signed up, but on arrival at the volunteer coordinator’s office, I was handed an interview form completely in Spanish. After filling it out, the volunteer coordinator invited me and an older woman into her office and spoke to us in bewilderingly fast Spanish. I struggled to keep up.

I don’t know when I finally figured out that the woman I had met was to be my new student – all I remember from that first meeting was being confused and worried that I was not remotely qualified for this job. At some point, I learned that Antonia was in her sixties, was from El Salvador, and was badly in need of a teacher. She had to work in her family’s store as a child instead of going to school, and at the time worked the night shift unloading cargo at a retailer. She spoke almost no English and had just recently learned to read and write in Spanish – my job was to improve both proficiencies. We would meet in the library once a week, on her only day off from work.

We started with reading and writing practice, and I found the work both frustrating and fulfilling. Antonia has a hard time following written directions; she works a night shift five nights a week, so she is often tired during our class. However, she is sure that education is the only way to improve her life, and is absolutely set on learning everything she possibly can. The more I learn about her life, the more impressed I am by her grit and determination to better herself.

One of the first grand successes showing her ability to add in columns with and without carrying. I was so proud I couldn’t help but take several photos of her work.

Information about Antonia’s life is never forthcoming, and I strive only to sketch enough personal details to help you understand how impressive she is to me. She came to the U.S. several decades ago – I’m not sure why, but I guess that it had to do with the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador. This subjected the population to extreme violence and human rights abuses and left hundreds of thousands of refugees in various areas in Latin America. Antonia arrived in the U.S. without the ability to speak English or even read and write in Spanish, but was still able to get a visa and various menial jobs. Years of this work have given her a golf-ball-sized cyst on her wrist and pain in her back from standing all night, and although she completely supports herself financially, she can’t get a better job without speaking English. Illiteracy in one’s own language makes it difficult to learn another, so she decided to learn to read and write in Spanish before starting English classes.

After three years of work with me in basic Spanish literacy, Antonia can now compose and write paragraphs and read almost anything without problems. She can do column addition, simple subtraction, multiplication, and fractions, and we are currently working on subtraction with borrowing. She has also attended sociology and computation classes required to pass primary school in the INEA program.1 Each week, she approaches me with some plan to learn something new or otherwise better herself. Sometimes it’s a computer skill that she wants me to write down steps for, and other times we look at books in English – she’s sure that if I can just teach her the names of English letters she can learn the language. She copies dozens of pages of these books into her notebook, determined to improve her English.

Copying some pages from an English composition work. Antonia is set on learning as much as she can.

Antonia tells me she has no family in El Salvador, and bitterly refuses to talk about her home or her childhood. In a way I’ve become a sort of family for her, and she for me, beyond our work together in class. I help her respond to mail in English and call clinics where she’s trying to get medical appointments. She brings me food and (every now and then) dresses she thinks would look good on me, complete with instructions on exactly how to wear them. She writes me letters and calls me on the weekends if she knows I’m not feeling well.

A rough translation to give the general sentiment: “Hello Marisa, my little girl, I wish you all the miracles of heaven. God is watching over you, a small girl with the remarkable story of your health that shows the truth of God’s great love.”

Antonia is not only my friend, but is a constant inspiration to me. She confronts daunting obstacles with a dogged determination to not only make ends meet but also to constantly improve herself. Helping her do so by providing such a basic human right as education is extremely fulfilling for me. Making a difference, however small, reminds me of my ultimate purpose to improve the lives of others.

PS. If anyone reading this post lives in the Dallas area, speaks Spanish, and wants to make a difference to some worthy adult learners by teaching a few hours per week, you can find more information on the program I work with here:

[1]: The program I worked for is called the National Adult Education Institute (INEA by its Spanish acronym). INEA is a Mexican government outreach program to promote adult literacy in Mexico and surrounding countries. It is specially tailored to educationally underserved populations, like those in remote rural areas, and includes curriculum in Spanish and several indigenous Latin American languages. The program began in 2001, and there are now around 500 INEA centers (called Plazas Comunitarias) around the U.S. which provide elementary, secondary, and other classes to Spanish speakers free of charge. In the state of Texas alone, it is estimated that 3.8 million people need adult education services, and 75% of the people who use such services that currently exist are Hispanic.

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