FCC Student Learns to Read and Write

Story By: Max Rosendahl,, & Annette De Dios

Edward Contreras remembers the first time a teacher complimented him.

After a lifetime of being classified as mentally handicapped, he enrolled in several electrical technology classes at Santa Monica City College. There, for the first time, a teacher told him he had real writing potential.

“I thought, are you serious?” he said. “But I believed her.”

These encouraging words were just what Contreras needed at that point in his educational career. From that point forward, he became motivated to improve his literacy.

Contreras, now in his second semester as a student at Fresno City College, graduated from high school without knowing how to read or write. Those first encouraging words eventually led him to his current goal: to become a writer.

In the past two years, Contreras has become a literate American citizen.

“I want to be the best writer to come out of Fresno City College,” he said.

Contreras is seen frequently in the FCC writing center, working on new fiction and nonfiction stories with the help of tutors. Tabitha Villalba, coordinator of the Early Learning Center, regularly mentors Contreras.

“All of the tutors have fallen in love with him,” Villalba said. “They love to read his work and really see the growth.”

One of the first classes Contreras took at FCC was English 126, a developmental reading course, with instructor Linda Ramos.

Contreras said Ramos was tough on him. But the harshness paid off.

“One day she had me stand in front of the class and read them a story I wrote and I received a standing ovation from my classmates,” he said.

Ramos said, “People’s previous judgments could have given any other person a negative self-image. He’s not a quitter. He’s persistent and it shows in his writing. While he was enrolled in my class, I witnessed a dramatic change in his writing. He’s made a complete turn around and he wants to do everything possible to improve his writing.”

Throughout his life, Contreras has experienced both emotional struggles and personal triumphs. Born in Fresno in 1944 right after World War II, he and his siblings were raised by his mother, a single Mexican immigrant.

When describing the most detrimental aspect of his childhood, Contreras said, “Growing up without a father, and seeing him with his other children, it would just destroy me. My father wanted to have nothing to do with my mother’s children.”

He said, “I started to blame myself for it.”

In addition to a rough childhood and lack of family support, Contreras experienced extreme difficulty in the classroom at an early age, flunking first and second grade. He added, “My first grade teacher labeled me mentally handicapped, and truly I believed it.”

When asked if he was given any additional academic support, Mr. Contreras said, “I needed a little more attention, but I never received any, and that’s where I wish my father would have come in. But it didn’t work that way. My mother could speak English, but she wasn’t much of a reader.”

Throughout his adolescence, Contreras said he was put down and underestimated. He continued through the public education system as a mentally handicapped student. He graduated from Venice High School in 1963 and still did not know how to write.

He said, “I was even told by one of my high school teachers that Mexican-Americans were only good for field work.”

In search of opportunity, Contreras said he joined the military, two years upon graduation in 1965. He said, “I volunteered for Vietnam but they sent me to Germany. I was partly ashamed being the only one in my family not to be sent to Vietnam.”

When asked if he was tested for literacy, he explained, “Back then if you could hear and see thunder, you qualified to join.”

Stationed at the Russian border where ”the weather was often 40 degrees below zero,” Contreras said he lost his enthusiasm for the military.

Because he was a military veteran, Contreras said he easily found work as an electrician upon his return home. He enrolled in related classes at Santa Monica City College, where he received his first encouragement to write.

Good things then started to happen.

After experiencing one failed marriage and spending some time in solitude, Contreras met a woman named Esperanza, who he would later marry and have two children with. Contreras said, “I wanted to be the best father for my children. I did not want them to grow up the way I did.” This further motivated Contreras to continue his education at Fresno City College.

His children are now grown. He said his son graduated from Fresno State and maintained a 3.8 GPA, and his daughter was able to maintain a 4.0 GPA while attending Fresno City College.

Mr. Contreras’ testimony is that of true dedication and triumph. At 63 years of age, he plans on furthering his education at a 4 year university. He leaves the message for his children and the rest of Americas’ youth:

“If you follow your interests, you will grow up to be the best leaders ever.”