“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” ~B.B. King
How does one choose between an education and food for one’s family? It is difficult for me to understand from my secure, economically stable, and knowledgeable world. But, choosing to provide for one’s family instead of going to school is a commonplace decision habitually made in most developing countries throughout the world.
The power of education or the power of family? It is almost impossible for me to imagine that this choice has to be made. Yet in Nicaragua, it really isn’t a choice for the poor; instead, it is a way of life. Food or education? Medicine or education? Low paid unskilled labor or education? The poor do not choose. That is a myth that I am beginning to understand from living in Nicaragua.
Without an education, it is difficult for me to understand how people function in a literate, high-tech world. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the adult literacy rate is the percentage of people ages 15 and above who can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement about their everyday life. In Nicaragua, 78% of the population is literate. Literacy chart comparing 215 countries.
It is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to be illiterate, unable to read or write words, and how terrifying and confusing the world must seem. Five years ago, this was the bewildering world in which Wilber lived. He knew very little about education and even less about the literate world surrounding him.
When Wilber was nine years old, his father ran off with another woman leaving him to care for a sick mother and his younger brother. He quit school and applied for a job as a farm hand on Ometepe Island.
“The farm owner said I was too tiny to work, but I convinced him to hire me because I needed to support my family.” ~ Wilber
Wilber worked on the farm for eight years for 50 cordóbas a day. He gave all of his earnings to his mother. When he turned 18, he went to Costa Rica to find work because he could make more money to support his family. In Costa Rica, he worked in construction and learned how to make cement blocks.
“One day, I went to a bank to cash my paycheck, and I couldn’t sign my name. I felt so stupid and the bank teller made fun of me and called me names.” ~Wilber
He was a 20-year-old increasingly anxious young man, who returned to Ometepe Island to build his young wife and baby girl, Catheline, a new house.
“All my life I saw my grandfather and father not being able to provide for their families. I wanted a better life for my family. I wanted a better house. I have to do better for my family.”~ Wilber
Wilber saw his childhood friends becoming successful. He wanted to learn how to read and write, but he was too embarrassed and ashamed to ask. He told me that he was always worried about not being successful and unable to provide for his family. He felt like he would never have a chance…but, then….he met Theresa and the greatest challenge of his life began.
“I remember it was my birthday and my first day of work at Theresa’s house. She took me to a restaurant for my birthday and handed me a menu. She said for me to choose whatever I wanted to eat. I couldn’t read the menu and I was too embarrassed to tell her.”~Wilber
Theresa understood immediately. She asked Wilber if he would like to learn to read and write Spanish and she would help him. He wanted to learn, but he felt like he wasn’t capable of learning. He had always been told he was stupid.
For one year, with Theresa’s gentle and encouraging guidance and an Adult Education class that met weekly in his small community, he mastered reading and writing in Spanish and earned a diploma…and the power of education swept Wilber into a new and exciting world.
“How beautiful it is when you know how to read. I can go shopping by myself and not have to ask anyone to read the labels for me.”~ Wilber
Then, Theresa said, “Now… how about learning English?”
“When I started to learn English, I wanted to learn everything. My brain went crazy! I had to learn to relax and go slow, then everything came easier.”~Wilber
Wilber is 25 years old now. He has a wife and two children, Catheline and Angel. He laughed when I asked him how his life has changed.
“Sometimes I can’t believe how I was before. I feel like a new person. Theresa changed my life completely.”~Wilber
Wilber has a good job in the tourism industry on Ometepe Island. I asked him to tell me the best part about working in tourism.
“I meet a lot of people from all over the world. I am so proud. I have a lot of fun now. Before, I felt like a lonely person.”~Wilber
What does the future hold for Wilber? He has many lofty goals. For the first time in his life, he has choices. He wants to save money for his children’s education because he never had a chance to go to school. He also wants to continue to study English. He is always improving his house for his family. Recently, he added an indoor bathroom and flush toilet to his home…the first one in his community!
in closing his interview I asked Wilber, “What else would you like people to know about you?
“Everything is possible in your life with motivation and choices. If you have someone who tells you that you are smart, you can make a beautiful life.”~Wilber
As a side note, I couldn’t repeat Wilber’s story without tears of joy. He is a remarkable and humble young man. He truly exemplifies the quote by B.B. King. “The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.”
And what a beautiful life Wilber has made for himself and his family. The power of education or the power of family? Wilber doesn’t need to choose one over the other ever again. Life is good.