A Mother’s Gift To Her Children

Hermalinda Barrera had an unusual reason to come to Literacy Council of Tyler to improve her English. It wasn’t to get a better job, or to be able to help her kids with their homework—she came to LCOT to help her better communicate with one of children.

Hermalinda has her knitting with her, her hands keep busy as we speak. “I first came to the United States in 1987,” she says. She goes on to tell us how she and her husband first lived in Chicago, where they started their family, and how they eventually ended up here, in Tyler, where their third child, Horacio, was born. Over time some problems had developed in the marriage, but she and her husband both worked and were busy with their three children and things seemed to be going all right. Then came the news that started her on her journey to LCOT.

“Horacio was three and a half years old when we found out that he was deaf,” Hermalinda tells us. This news and the struggles it would portend were too much for a marriage that was already straining, and she and her husband divorced.

The following years were hard, but Hermalinda was managing. “It was hard being a single mother,” she says. “But my other children were doing well in school and we got Horacio into special classes.”

Hermalinda learned some sign language, but when she tried to take sign language classes, her limited English proficiency was a problem. “The classes were in English. I couldn’t keep up.”

Hermalinda came to LCOT in 2010. She had re-married, her youngest child, Aaron was in school, her son Horacio, now 18, was in Austin at the Texas School for the Deaf, and her house and car were paid off. She knew it was time to go back to school. “I can speak English pretty well,” she tells us, and she’s right. “But my writing and reading…” she shrugs and smiles. “They are not so good.”

Writing and reading English is especially important now, since her main method of communication with her son, Horacio, is via text message. “I will want to tell him something and I can’t. It is so frustrating to be able to say a word but not know how to write it.”

Her LCOT teachers understood early that her speaking ability was much better than her reading and writing. They had Hermalinda keep a journal in addition to doing the regular classwork. Progressing quickly through the ESL levels it didn’t take Hermalinda long to come to the attention of the ESL Supervisor, Ellie Fischer.

“Ellie said I should move to the pre GED classes,” Hermalinda explains. “My friends in my ESL classes wanted me to stay there with them, but I told them, ‘No. If Ellie believes I can do it, I am going to push myself to do it.”

As we have seen so often with our students, Hermalinda’s education is already influencing her family. “I am showing my kids that it’s never too late to learn.” Instead of the usual arguments about homework, her nine-year-old son, Aaron sits down to do his homework with his mother. Hermalinda laughs when she describes their routine. “He says, ‘I will race you!’ and I say, ‘Ok.’ and when he finishes I tell him ‘you win!’”

Her oldest two children, Vivian and Joe are both talking about going back to school. “Vivian has taken some classes at TJC and she wants to go back. Joe is in the Marine Reserves. He already had plans to go to college in Austin this summer.” Even her husband is getting into the spirit of things; he’s now taking ESL classes at our Douglas Night program.

 “You know I hadn’t planned to get a GED,” Hermalinda tells us. “I was focused on my reading and writing and learning sign language. But now I think maybe I can do something more. My daughter told me that with knowing Spanish, English and Sign Language, maybe I can do something in the future when I’m not cleaning houses.”

Hermalinda carefully folds her knitting back up and slips it into her bag. “When God takes something from you he’ll give you thousands of things in return. It was really tough being divorced and being a single mother, but I met so many really great people—my customers and my friends, Hermalinda says with a smile. “To find Literacy Council of Tyler was an awesome thing—a real blessing. Maybe someday I can help Literacy Council.”

 

Meet Student Andrew Simmons

Andrew Simmons is 29 years old, with a ready smile and a quick wit. The afternoon he told his story to the LCOT Board he had the whole room laughing.

“I’ve got to say…I am an entertainer,” he tells us, “but in school that caused problems. I didn’t seem to know the right time to do it. I disrupted class and never did the work.”

Growing up in New York, Andrew might have been the class comedian, but he knew his teachers thought he had real potential. It wasn’t unusual, he recalls, for a teacher to stop him in the hall and ask him why he wasn’t trying. Andrew shrugged off their concern. “I didn’t want my friends to know I was smart,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t want anybody to think I was a nerd.”

As time went on and he kept ignoring his schoolwork, it continued to pile up and Andrew found himself falling further and further behind. Unsurprisingly, he dropped out.

After a few years of low-paying jobs and even a brush with the law, Andrew finally caught a break. A friend offered him a place to live for free if he would clean their church and go back to school. So Andrew took him up on the offer and enrolled in a GED class.

“The classes I went to at first were a joke,” Andrew says. “We all worked at our own level and I just stayed at that level. When I took the GED, I didn’t pass.” When Andrew learned that he hadn’t passed, he came close to giving up. “I told my mom that I couldn’t do it…that I was just meant to be a thug. But she’s my mother and she wouldn’t let me give up.”

Andrew tried another GED class in New York and wasn’t making much progress there either. Thankfully, before he could get discouraged and give up entirely, Andrew and his mother moved to Tyler. Andrew’s mother, Rebecca Simmons, became an LCOT volunteer and her son enrolled in our GED classes.

“Here, the first day I was in class I knew it was serious,” Andrew says with a laugh. “Mr. Swain walked in and all the students got quiet and settled down. In the other classes I’d had in the past the teachers had no control, but Rick Swain and Carol Biggs meant business.”

Andrew sheepishly goes on to admit that at one point he got kicked out of Carol Biggs’s class for being disruptive. “Ms. Biggs is like my mother. She kept me in line.” This was a wake-up call for Andrew and when he got back in classes he started really applying himself and started to make real progress.

He still remembers a conversation he had with his LCOT teachers that made a big difference. “They brought me in to talk to them. They told me if I wanted my GED I had to be selfish and forget my friends for awhile. ‘You need a GED’ they told me and they were right. So I worked hard and I got it.”

When asked about the future, Andrew doesn’t hesitate. He tells us he’s taking the LCOT college prep class and going on to college. “I’m into Music,” Andrew says. “I want to be a producer. You know, I thought I could never get a GED. But now I feel like…if I could do this, I can do other stuff.”