Leader Blues

Monday, January 19, 2009

TOP STORY > > Hazen resident works toward earning his GED

Leader staff writer

Charles Washington of Hazen had a rude awakening when one day long ago he went job hunting in the city, after a move to Tulsa from an Arkansas cotton farm. He was 20 years old, but was no stranger to work – that was not the problem. From childhood he had toiled in the fields, chopping cotton, along with his father and siblings. For the 12 children in his family, school was a luxury. The crops and the owner’s demands came first. After eighth grade, Washington dropped out of school entirely to run a tractor and other farm equipment. Yes, he knew how to work.

But he did not know how to read or fill out a job application.

“The lady brought me an application and a pencil and told me to fill it out,” he recalled. “I just sat there and looked at it. It was kind of funny, but not really.”
Luckily, his prospective employer knew a good man when he saw one and asked the secretary to fill out the form for Washington. “That was really embarrassing. When you can’t read, when you have no knowledge of what’s on that paper, you are really missing a whole lot. Reading is knowledge, but reading is understanding, too.”

In his spare time, Washington began studying for his GED, but soon gave that up to get a second job to support his family. What Washington lacked in education, he made up in a strong work ethic, making it through the years as a janitor and pipe fitter. However, his experience on the farm as an equipment operator was of no value to any employer, because he could not pass the test for a license.

Three years ago, Washington saw his chance again to pursue his education. An accident had forced him into an early retirement, but blessed him with time on his hands. Roy Henderson of the Literacy Council of Lonoke County began tutoring Washington; they have become fast friends.

Washington was clear on his goals: to be able to read and understand the Bible, and to earn his GED. He has accomplished the first, and is well on his way to achieving the second, despite a learning disability from the accident. In a year, he should be ready to test for the GED. “He can do anything now that he wants to,” Henderson says emphatically. “He is one of our best students ever. I admire his courage.”

Today, being able to read is critical, Washington observed. Even his old job on the farm might be out of reach for someone who can’t read. “The way things are going now, everything is computerized, even a tractor. I couldn’t drive it; I doubt I could even start it. You have to be able to read the manual.”