Stella M. Chávez
Learning a new language isn’t easy. It’s even harder if you haven’t been to school in decades. That hasn’t stopped 85-year-old Pablo Valverde, who’s setting an example for his younger classmates.
The KERA Radio story
On a recent morning inside a Dallas classroom, students learn how to introduce themselves and ask each other questions in English. Teacher Jorge Saucedo tells Pablo Valverde and a classmate to stand up and practice.
Student: “Hi, my name is Adriana.”
Valverde: “My name is Pablo.”
Student: “What color is your eyes?
Valverde: “My eyes? I’m not sure. They’re green or whatever you can see. You name it. You name it.”
The class erupts in laughter. At 85, Valverde hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Nor has he lost his desire to learn. A year ago, he enrolled in the Dallas Independent School District’s adult education program, which has an enrollment of more than 4,800 students. The majority of them — more than 3,500 — are enrolled in the district’s English as a second language (ESL) classes. Students here come from countries like Mexico, Spain, Columbia, Ethiopia, China and Korea. Valverde says he can speak English but, like many of his classmates, wants to go beyond that.
“Because I like to learn to read and write,” Valverde says. “My teacher, he been teaching me. Little by little, one of these days I’m gonna learn.”
Valverde, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, only got as far as the third grade in his native country. He stopped going to school after his father – a miner – died from lung disease. He was just 40. Valverde was 8.
He says his father’s death affected him. The family was poor and slept in one room. Pablo took up a job to help his family. He delivered bread from a bakery by pushing a wooden cart stacked with fresh loaves. He’d get up at 4 a.m. and earned only three pesos a day. Eventually, he saved up enough money to buy a bike so he could make faster deliveries. It’s the same perseverance he had as a child that pushes him to improve his English today.
“Right now, I’m very happy right here with my teacher and the students because at my house I’ve been doing nothing but watching TV, and I don’t want to do that cause I’m gonna die too quick,” Valverde says. “I would like to live few more years if I can.”
Valverde came to the United States when he was 18, working first as a dishwasher at a drugstore in El Paso. He would later learn about framing, roofing and remodeling. He retired from the construction business at age 63. His teacher says he’s impressed with his Valverde’s commitment to education.
“His attendance is great. He’s always here. It doesn’t matter what the weather may be outside. Of course, he lives nearby so that helps out a lot,” Saucedo says. “He’s very independent and he’s very respectful. And he’s very funny for an older gentleman. He’s very funny, so the whole class enjoys him.”
Mirella Patlan, who’s 34 and sits next to Valverde, says students look up to their classmate, who drives to school in a red pickup truck and always wears a tweed hat. She says sometimes younger students don’t have that same level of dedication. Forty-six-year-old Rafael Fermin, who’s originally from Spain, says Valverde gives others hope. He admires his enthusiasm.
Dallas school district officials say Valverde’s actually not the most senior student in the adult education program. There’s a 90-year-old student in Carrollton and a couple of other students in their 80s enrolled in classes.
Valverde says he’d like to use his new skills by finding some part-time work. He has some advice for other immigrants who want to learn English.
“First thing I’m gonna tell ‘em is, ‘What you waiting for? Let’s go,’” Valverde says. “Never it’s too late to learn for me. I don’t think it’s gonna be late for you either.”