Stories - Gloucester, MATómas: Never Give Up

I was born in Guatemala, the 12th of 13 children. My mother died when I was 5 years old, leaving my father to care for us younger children. We lived in the country and owned a farm. I attended school until the third grade, when my father pulled me out to work on our farm. I was a kid and had no choice. I wanted to help my father on the farm, but at 10 years old my 13 year old brother and I had a big argument with him about feeding the animals. He was so upset with us that we decided to leave. We slept in the barn that night and early the next morning we decided to leave home and live on our own.

We walked and walked for what seemed like forever; especially for me because I was barefoot (I had left my shoes in the house the night before and didn’t want to go back into the house to get them before we left). Eventually, we came to a coffee plantation, decided to ask for work, and were hired. We were paid $11.00 for every 100 pounds of coffee we picked. I usually picked 300 pounds every two weeks and was paid $33.00 in total. Because I didn’t earn much, it took me two months to save enough money to replace the shoes I had left at home. I continued to work at the coffee plantation until I was 17, when I decided to leave Guatemala and move to Mexico.

While working for a construction company in Mexico City, I became friends with a co-worker and eventually told him about being pulled out of school in the 3rd grade. His wife was a teacher and he asked her to tutor me. After a long while and many hours of tutoring, I was evaluated and told I was at the 6th grade level. I was happy. I had increased 3 grade levels from the time I was pulled out of school and wanted to increase more, so I decided to go back to school. While continuing to work full-time, I began taking night classes at the local middle school. It was really difficult to work and go to school at the same time, but I eventually got through it and graduated 8th grade. This was a big moment for me and my plan was to continue on to high school in Mexico City. But my plan changed, as many plans do, and I decided to go to the United States and join my younger brother who was living in Gloucester, Massachusetts. That was almost 2 decades ago.

When I arrived in Gloucester I knew no English, which limited the type of job I could get. I started working in a fish factory, then Cape Pond Ice, and eventually construction. I moved from one construction job to another. I worked a lot, was always tired, and didn’t have much time to take English classes. I studied for about a month with a tutor at the Sawyer Free Library and also attended a Saturday YMCA program in Boston for less than a year. Working all the time limited my ability to go back to school, but I did everything I could to learn English without actually attending classes…I watched American TV, I wrote down every English word I heard and didn’t know then later looked it up in the dictionary, and I also learned from the Americans I worked with.

“At 43 years old, I’m learning things in school I never knew before and with all this new knowledge, I’m able to help my two children with their homework. It’s a great feeling!”  – Tómas

Eventually, I got married, had two kids, and started my own construction business. Working for myself, I realized I needed more education and a high school diploma to qualify for certifications I needed to expand and advance my business. So I talked to my wife, who was attending classes at the Action Inc. Adult Education program, and she thought I should also study at Action. So, I went to Action for an evaluation and was told I was at the 8th grade level. I thought that’s not too bad, almost 20 years ago I was at the 8th grade level studying in my own language, and now I’m at the 8th grade level in my second language. I started studying at Action this past fall and now 2 nights a week my wife and I go to class together, along with my younger brother, who was my reason for coming to Gloucester so many years ago.

At 43 years old, I’m learning things in school I never knew before and with all this new knowledge, I’m able to help my two children with their homework. It’s a great feeling! I got a lot of help along the way and I’m getting more help from my teachers at Action. I still work all the time, I’m still always tired, but no matter how tired I am I go to every class because I know it’s important. This time I plan to continue my education without interruption…this time I will keep studying until I get my high school equivalency…this time I will succeed.