Written by Irma’s teacher, Brandi Fernandez
Irma Gonzalez was orphaned at the age of eight. She had to drop out of school in the second grade to help provide for her siblings. She arrived in the United States 20 years ago, and did not have the ability to read or write in her native language of Spanish. I started teaching Irma in April 2016 through our pilot program at Tyson. When I met her, she didn’t know how to say a single word in English, we were only able to communicate through my little bit of Spanish, and Google translate. She came to class prepared with a few sheets of paper and a pocket dictionary that has survived floods and fires, and only has a fraction of the pages left. She didn’t know what the words in the dictionary said, but she has been studying them since she was a girl.
The first thing we worked on was the English alphabet. I have never had more of a challenge. All of my previous students had basic literacy skills, and this was my first time working with someone from the very beginning. Within two weeks, Irma recognized every letter and their sounds. I cried the first time she said all 26 letters. She cried. Then something even more amazing happened in the following weeks: she began sounding out words. Irma was beginning to read! This 57 year old woman read her first words at 5 A.M., an hour before her shift started, and after a night of raising three of her grandchildren. Irma and I now have basic conversations, she is picking up more vocabulary each day, she knows most of the sight words, and she can sound out nearly every word I write on the board. She practices her reading skills with children’s books that she reads with her eight year old granddaughter every night. She says hello to her coworkers who don’t speak Spanish. She tells me she loves me every morning when we part ways. On Tuesday, June 28, Irma made her first doctor’s appointment by herself. She went in and filled out the forms, in English, for the first time unassisted. The things many people take for granted, like being able to do simple tasks without having to ask for help, are now becoming a possibility for Irma.
Irma comes to my class at 4:30 in the morning. That’s an hour and a half before she works a 12 hour shift. She goes home and takes care of three children and her household. Without this program, she wouldn’t have a chance to take an English class. She is far too busy to go in the evenings and so 4:30 in the morning is the only extra time she has. Because of our program, Irma is finally able to have a sense of independence. She has a long way to go, but in just three short months she has learned so much. I am amazed at her commitment every single day that I have the honor to teach her. I am so proud to have been there to witness her learning to read and to see the excitement on her face when she tells me new things she has done. If there is a reason that I will continue to teach as long as possible, it is for Irma and all of my students whose lives changed thanks to Ozark Literacy Council.