For more than two decades, the Voices of Adult Learners reading has brought a diverse range of writers and experiences to the book festival. “We think it’s really special, given the turmoil in Charlottesville over the last couple years,” says Carol Coffey, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Adult Learning Center. “We have this amazing international fabric that really brings us together, but a lot of these folks are very marginalized…and they don’t have an opportunity to share their stories.”
The TJALC offers GED, ESL, and other classes to adults throughout the region. Each year, its students (along with those from partners like Literacy Volunteers and the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail) are invited to submit essays for the contest. The winners get a $25 prize, are published in an anthology, and read at the festival.
“It’s a really inspiring event,” says Coffey, who adds that the anthology is also distributed in the community.
Here are some of this year’s winning entries. —Laura Longhine
From rude to cool
By Majid Ghanei
I am a 20-year-old fellow who was born and raised in Denmark. I have lived my whole life in a section of Copenhagen called Nørrebro. Nørrebro is a multicultural neighborhood. My parents arrived in Denmark in 1997 as Iranian refugees with my two older sisters, and they sought asylum. I spent my whole life in a ghetto called Blagards Plads. The characteristic of this place is the high unemployment and crime rate. Danish politicians and the news frequently stigmatize this ghetto.
Unfortunately, this has a bad impact on some of the young boys. They create gangs for themselves to find safety and get the recognition they never get from society. These gangs deal drugs and commit violent crime, to earn money and to increase their territory. Some of the boys are 10-14 years old. They see older gangsters as role models because they drive in nice cars bought with drug money and they want to follow in the same way as their big brothers. They then decide to drop out of school after elementary school. All the parents of those people have lost control of their children for a while and they can’t do anything, especially when they find out their boy is brought to the jail.
I grew up with those boys and many of them were my friends. I was such a rude boy when I was younger. However, I did not have any problems with the school compared to the others. But there still was a lot of bad energy in me. I used to hang out with bad friends in my free time, but I also focused on my schoolwork. Many of my friends had already given up school, and they just wanted to finish the mandatory school, so they could join the gang groups and make money as criminals.
My parents weren’t happy that I was hanging out with those boys. Every day before I left home to hang out with the boys, I had to discuss it with my mum for a while. However, I was stubborn and really ignored her concerns. My teacher told my parents that my school work was dropping in quality. I was not doing my homework. During that period, I felt that I did not fit in the group with those boys. However, I continued to hang out with them. I was the only person in the group who did not smoke marijuana and was just watching them when they did.
One day everything in my life changed. My parents told me that I should either choose my friends or them, because I spent a lot of time with my friends and forgot all about my family. As a child I was in a dilemma, because those friends meant a lot to me.
After a week my friends told me that they have decided to not let me be a part of the group, because they thought I was a schoolboy and I should focus on my education. They told me that they don’t want to break my future because of them.
After that speech, I decided to change my life in a better way and focused on my education. I graduated high school with one of the highest grade-point averages.
One day I read in the news that on my old friends got arrested by the police for a shooting. He got 10 years for that. I thought “Thank God for changing my life and for giving me a better life and a family who wanted the best for me”
Taking a chance
By Qin Zheng
My husband and I moved to Florida from China. I loved Florida, but my husband did not like Florida because of the hot weather. We thought about moving to Virginia because my husband’s cousin lived there. At the time, I was pregnant so moving to Virginia was a big risk. We would need to start new jobs, get a new house, and find a hospital where my baby would be born.
We took a chance, and moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, in November 2013. We stayed in a hotel for a few days. My husband found a restaurant job and we moved to an apartment. We felt lucky that my husband found a job so quickly. He worked 13 hours in the kitchen every day and I worked part-time until my baby was born.
During this time, we had so many obstacles. We had problems with co-workers and bosses because we could not speak English very well. Also, working 13 hour days was very hard for my husband. We wanted to get better jobs, but our language barrier prevented us.
One day, a friend of mine told me about the Literacy Center. They have volunteers that meet with you one-on-one to teach you English. My husband and I were so excited to hear about this program. We needed this change because we needed better jobs and a better life.
We contacted the Literacy Center and a month later we got our own teachers. We were able to study and learn and put a lot of effort into speaking better English. As a result, my husband took the Commercial Driver’s License class so he could become a truck driver. He recently passed the CDL test. I am so proud of him! I am working as a waitress and now I understand much more English from customers, coworkers, and my boss.
Last year, we bought a small house. Even though it is a small house, it is just enough for my family. We are not rich, but my whole family is together, and that means everything to me.
We are so appreciative of the Literacy Center. They are teaching us so that we have more opportunities in the future. I have learned that if we take a chance and work hard, our life can change for the better.
My Exciting Year
By Bushiri Salumu
I was seventeen when I dropped out of high school.
I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and because of crisis and war I was forced to leave. I had no choice but to seek some form of safety in a Zambian refugee camp. Life in the camp was difficult and filled with hardship. We refugees went for weeks without food and we felt like prisoners because we were not allowed to leave the camp. During my time in the camp, I began the process of seeking asylum because life there as a refugee was unbearable. After four years I was selected for resettlement to the United States as a refugee.
I arrived in the United States on October 17, 2012 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The journey to Charlottesville was long. I spoke no English when I arrived. After several months getting settled in the Charlottesville community, I began taking some English classes that the International Rescue Committee offered. It was by taking those classes that I was able to learn the English alphabet and simple greetings with my incredible teacher Heidi Gordon. She was my first teacher since I dropped out of school. In the beginning, the class was very hard. After three months in Heidi’s class. I was transferred to take some classes at the Adult Learning Center. At the Adult Learning Center, I took some advanced English as Second Language (ESL) classes and some computer classes. However, I had to take a break from school in order to work so I could pay rent and buy a car. Still, I was determined to keep learning and adjusting to my new home.
In early 2017, I started a General Education Development (GED) program. I took three different classes for my GED program: social studies, mathematics, and science. I struggled greatly with the exams, as I had to try several times in order to pass them. The English exam was the greatest challenge for me. I worked with several tutors who I call my heroes because they helped me so much in passing my English exam. I failed my English exam six times, but on my seventh time I managed to pass it all thanks to the wonderful tutors who helped me. On December 4, 2018, I was able to get my GED diploma and I was very thrilled. I felt like all my hard work paid off.
There are three things that made my GED degree possible. The first was the guts to never give up on my goal. I have always loved learning but due to conflict and war I was unable to accomplish my high school diploma. However, I persevered through hard work because I knew it was not going to be easy to get my GED. Another thing that kept me moving was patience. I knew that it was going to take a long time for me to pass my classes and get my GED, so patience was the only thing that kept me moving. The last thing that kept me moving was communication. When I failed, I reached out to my teachers, tutors, and other people in my life to advise me on what I did wrong. It was through communication that I was able to get different ideas and strategies on how I could pass my tests.
It was because of those traits that I was able to get my GED. Just days after passing my GED exams, I achieved another important milestone. On December 14, 2018, I became a citizen of the United States of America. With so many of my goals finally met, I can say that it has been a very exciting year for me.
Thanks to My Daughter
By Miwako Rice
When my daughter was in preschool, she brought home a piece of paper with just a list of all her classmates’ name on it. I didn’t know what that meant so I just kept it.
On the Valentine’s Day, my daughter came home with a bag full of gifts and treats from her classmates with her name on it. My daughter was happy with what she got, but she told me she was sad that she didn’t have anything to share with her friends. I felt sorry to make her feel that way just because I didn’t know what the list meant, and I didn’t ask anyone about that. I need to do something. Since then, I’ve tried to volunteer at my daughter’s school as much as I can to learn how American schools are like and understand what I need know for my daughter. By volunteering, I got to know the teachers, and became friends with some of the mothers who also volunteer.
Those experiences made me gain confidence with my life. If it was just me, I might not have tried hard to overcome my fear of making mistakes. But I really wanted to help my daughter enjoy her school and learn many things there. In the end I feel like my daughter helped me learn a lesson. Thanks to my daughter I also enjoy my days.