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Rural Missouri Magazine

A yearn to learn
At age 70, the wonderful world of words opens up for grade-school student Alferd Williams

by Heather Berry

Born a sharecropper’s son, Alferd Williams, 70, has been learning to read in Alesia Hamilton’s first-grade class in Saint Joseph. Alesia, a 19-year teaching veteran, was recently chosen as the school district’s “Teacher of the Year.”

He follows the string of words on the page with a time-worn finger as a guide.

“What’s a Vik-ing?” Alferd Williams asks his teacher.

Alesia Hamilton, a first-grade teacher at Edison Elementary in Saint Joseph, helps him with his pronunciation and explains. Satisfied, Alferd continues reading. As he finishes the chapter, the gray-haired student smiles a huge, toothless grin and exclaims, “I couldn’t do that a couple of years ago.”

In 2006, this sharecropper’s son finally made it back to school — this time as a 68-year-old student in Hamilton’s first-grade class.

Born in 1937, Alferd only had the chance to attend school for two weeks as a young child. Then his father became ill, and Alferd and most of his eight siblings had to work the fields to help make ends meet. Alferd was 7 when he left school to help with the 100 acres in Tennessee where his family grew potatoes, corn, cabbage, okra, peanuts and cotton each year.

“If we had any spare time, it wasn’t for schooling,” says Alferd. “Dad would just add a few more acres on this year’s crop for the next year.”

Alferd says his mother was able to read a little, but she couldn’t teach the children because they didn’t have any books. She did teach Alferd how to count because he needed that skill for field work. His father couldn’t read at all and didn’t think school was important.

“My mother was my first teacher, and I never had another until I met Mrs. Hamilton,” Alferd says. “Mom used to cry and pray that one day I’d get to go to school. I wish she knew her prayer has been answered.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 30 million adults can’t read basic text — such as directions or even a simple story to their child. But Alferd and others like him are proving it’s never too late for an education.

Throughout life, Alferd somehow managed to get by without knowing how to read. Not afraid of hard work, he did welding, cooking, concrete work and odd jobs in many states over the years. He lived in a homeless shelter for a while, and eventually he ended up in northwest Missouri where a church friend offered him a spare room.

Alesia, a 19-year teaching veteran who watched Alferd walk the friend’s three young children to school for two years, assumed he was the trio’s grandfather.

“He was always there on time to walk the kids home and he was so polite to me,” says Alesia, 43. “He was just a ray of sunshine every day.”

One day, Alferd asked a question about something that had been in the newsletter the teacher had sent home with the kids. She said, “Alferd, didn’t you read the newsletter this week? All the details were in there.”

Alferd’s reply totally shocked her.

“Oh ma’am, I don’t know how to read,” she recalls Alferd saying.

Alesia asked the soft-spoken man if he’d ever tried to learn. He told her that nobody had enough patience for him, and when he’d tried, they’d yell at him for not knowing more than he did.

Alesia offered the help of some reading teachers, but Alferd initially declined. It wasn’t too long before he came to Alesia and said, “I’ve been thinking I’d take some of that reading help now.”

Delighted, she again offered the help of some friends who taught.

“Oh no, no,” Alferd said emphatically. “I want you to teach me. You got the patience.”

Unsure of her ability to teach a completely illiterate adult to read, Alesia eventually agreed to help him each afternoon after summer school.

“He only knew about three words and only knew some letter names, but he didn’t know they made different sounds,” says Alesia. “We’d study a few hours, then he’d go home and work and work on it — and he kept coming back.”

Impressed by his dedication, Alesia convinced her principal to let Alferd join her class in the fall of 2006. After clearing a district-required background check, Alferd was the first adult student to ever attend first grade at Edison Elementary.

One day, Alferd came in to his study session and excitedly told Alesia about his trip to the grocery store. He told her about how the store had signs above the aisles and shelves that told you what you’d find there.

“So you don’t have to walk and walk all through the store to find stuff,” says Alferd, recalling with excitement the discovery that would take hours off his shopping trips.

“All that time, he never had a clue,” says Alesia, shaking her head. “That’s when I knew he was really going to learn how to read. And that’s when I realized that a few hours of tutoring for me was changing one man’s entire world.”

This fall, Alferd begins his third year in first grade. He could move on to third grade, but he’s more comfortable with Alesia teaching him, checking his progress and helping him study each summer.

“The kids love him,” she says. “They’re always saying things like, ‘Alferd, are you coming to my birthday party?’ ‘Alferd are you going to play kickball with us when we go outside?’ ‘Alferd, are you staying for lunch today?’

“He’s probably the only student I’ll ever have that drinks coffee in class, but other than that, if they’re reading, he’s reading. If they’re writing, he’s writing,” Alesia says. “He does everything the kids do.”

While Alferd’s too big for the small chairs, he sits on a short stool and has his own little desk area in the back of the classroom.

The septuagenarian says he plans to stay in Alesia’s class year after year until he gets his GED. He even hopes to attend college one day.

Alferd’s desire to learn to read has garnered him a bit of fame both locally and nationally. Magazines, newspapers and news broadcasts across the U.S. have shared pieces of his story. His most notable coverage came when he was invited to Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2006 and, most recently, “The Ellen DeGeneres’ Show” this past April.

After talking to Alesia and Alferd, Ellen handed Williams a check for $10,000. Fighting tears, Alferd said he hoped to use the money some day as a down payment on a home — something he’s never had.

The gift gave Alferd a reason to practice his new skills by writing a note of thanks.

“I really don’t like writing, but I have to write,” he says, recalling his thoughts. “So when we got back, I just sat down with my pencil to write the note and I thought, ‘Well if I misspell something, ya’ll got to remember I’m only in the first grade!’”

Alferd knows his life will never be the same now that he can read — and he’s thankful for that.

“I feel freedom now,” says Alferd. “My people probably did come up through slavery, but there’s all types of people who’s enslaved to things today.

“If you can’t read, you can’t do it until someone shows you how to. So you’re still enslaved. The only way to be free is to do like I did — just do it and get on it, because it’s never too late to learn.”

You may write to Alferd Williams in care of Alesia Hamilton, 1202 S. Arbor, Savannah, MO 64485 or via e-mail at alesia.hamilton@sjsd.K12.mo.us. Donations can be sent to Build A Home For Alferd, c/o Tiffany Tant-Shafer, P.O. Box 173, Saint Joseph, MO 64502-0173. For information about adult literacy programs, call the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Literacy hotline at 800-521-7323.

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