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I Am Not Stupid

By Karlene James-Joseph

“I am not stupid,” Jerome James said as he shyly smiled when I asked him what the most important thing he learned while completing his Charter Oak Cultural Center courses was.

We were both at the recent graduation reception for students of the Beat of the Streets Center for Creative Learning. James, along with two other men and one woman, had completed eight arts and leadership courses at their own pace. And having done so, we were here with teachers, past graduates, current students, community leaders, and program patrons, like me, celebrating their achievements.

“A story in the Beat of the Streets (BOTs) newspaper changed my life,” James said. He was at South Park Inn, a homeless shelter in Hartford, Connecticut. And there, on his assigned bed, was the BOTs issue for the month. It is a newspaper with stories, news and creative writing by homeless people for homeless people and distributed by homeless people. That evening, James said tears streamed down his face when he read the life story of Sam Machel, a fellow man without a home named after the Mozambican politician and first president of independent Mozambique. The Machel in the BOTs newsletter and his namesake had life experiences familiar to James. Under Portuguese rule, Machel, the statesman, saw his father and grandfather economically exploited because of the color of their skin. Machel, the Connecticut resident, dropped out of school after being ostracized when he could not read out loud, spell well, or comprehend grade-level books. Like James, both Machel men did not complete their secondary education. Reading about these men caused James to think about his journey to this place, that bed.

He told me he was born in Hartford’s North End in 1955. His birth coincided with the decade that the city started its steep economic decline, as the white flight to the suburbs began in mass. His most vivid memory of his childhood was his first-grade class in the brand new Fred D. Wish Elementary School. After reviewing a paper that James wrote, his teacher, John Tyler, shouted for the whole class to hear, “Are you stupid? This is completely wrong!” James believed him.

He carried the belief that he was stupid for the rest of his school career. It ended in 9th grade when he simply grew tired of trying and never returned to class after seeing a red “F” scrawled on the top of an English paper. Then, 44 years later, he was sitting on a bed, reading a similar account from another man. James said, “Machel said that after he started taking classes at Charter Oak, the staff helped him realize that he had dyslexia, a pervasive reading disorder. This article kindled the possibility that I could learn.” James felt compelled to check out Charter Oak.

He was so excited when he recalled his first course with me. He moved me inescapably with his account of his reading of the literary masterpiece, Homer, The Odyssey. The guide coached him on how to approach dissecting, understanding and appreciating the story. He remembered the moment that, in astonishment and joy. James realized that he could read, he could understand, could interpret. He could analyze, relate, and share these insights in his voice and in a way that others can also get the story’s meaning and relevance to the human experience. I could not help but think that James’s personal journey was an allusion to Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.

James said, “Miss when I stepped into the boardroom where classes are held, the director greeted me with a big hug and a smile. I had never ever experienced such a greeting.” Fast forward to the graduation reception, I raised my arms and embraced this fantastic, inspirational, beautiful fellow human.

All around us, people like James have been hurt and knocked down by people and circumstances. And all around us are organizations like Charter Oak Cultural Center that provide transformational experiences that tell them they are valued, worthy, intelligent and above all, human. James certainly got these messages. Organizations like this promote social justice by providing equal opportunities for self-improvement. It enabled Jerome James to finish eight courses and graduate from the program. He knows for sure that he is not stupid.

The name of the graduate was changed to protect his privacy until I get his permission to name him in my piece.

Charter Oak Cultural Center, and programs like the Beat of the Streets depends on the generosity of people, like you, please consider making a monetary donation, that causes some measure of pain, perhaps: