Sylvester Derby

In this instalment of Alta’s Trailblazer series, we take a look back at Sylvester Derby. In a piece he wrote in 2002, Sylvester outlined his start as a struggling student through to his personal and professional breakthroughs with literacy through Alta. First published in Newsday. Reprinted with permission.

“I was 34 years old before I really learned to spell and read. I had from an early age always had a learning problem and then Alta came into my life.

“I felt as though I was the only person in the world who had a learning problem until I started attending Alta Maraval evening classes in 1994. While there I realised I was not alone with this problem. I always thought that if I could attend a Secondary School I would not have this problem, but that was not so at all.

“Some of the students who attended the Alta programme had gone to Secondary School but they were worse off than me and in fact I did better than most of them in spelling and reading exercises. That surprised me, and made me realise how hard I had been on myself for so many years.

“Now I can put pen to paper and explain myself in writing. Before I would freeze up when I was unable to spell a word. Instead of cooling myself, I would become very angry and this made me feel very bad. All that has changed now and I was selected from my class to appear on television and radio to make people aware of the work that Alta is doing. People who needed help to improve their reading and spelling skills can really get help.

“I always thought that I was not good enough because I did not attend Secondary School. Alta showed me that it was lack of self-confidence. I never told anyone about my problems, because I was afraid to ask for help and I did not want people to think that I was stupid. Right now I am feeling very proud of myself. I can share my experience with other people without feeling bad about myself. Thank God for that.

“I want to say special thanks to my teacher Mrs. Cynthia Ellis, who always encouraged me. When I did a story Mrs. Ellis would show me how to improve it, thus building my self-confidence. At one time Alta asked all the teachers in their centres around Trinidad and Tobago to let their students write a true story about the things which they remembered while growing up. I wrote about times I had with my sisters. I was one of the students whose stories were selected. Alta then published a book containing all the stories. I felt so proud of my achievement that I showed the book to my family and friends. The name of the book is called At Last: Adult Learners Write.”

(Sylvester’s story continues next week)