Carnelia Van Buren-Bowdry did something brave at the Hayward Adult School. She told her life story to a room filled with family, friends and fellow students. Van Buren-Bowdry, spoke of facing racism while growing up in Decoto - now part of Union City - in the '50s and '60s, and how she's adding to the skills set she received as a graduate from Tennyson High School in 1973. Another student, James Mills, though nearly 30 years younger, got up and discussed his many obstacles growing up, how he faced child abuse and obesity.
One by one, instructor Winnie Thompson led students from her Learning Center class at the adult school as they celebrated their yearlong efforts on Friday with a "life stories presentation" - in which students talked of tribulations to a packed room of more than 50 rapt listeners.
"When people are able to put their pain into words, it frees them to translate their pain into power," Thompson said. "And when they get a warm response from the audience, they realize they're part of the community, that they're normal."
It made for a somber, pre-holiday school function like no other, and simultaneously illustrated the special niche the school fills by giving second chances to those who desperately need one.
In room C-13 at the campus, formerly Sunset High School, Winnie Thompson leads a diverse class of pupils who are striving to take control of their lives - which once were wayward and struggling for some - and turn them around once and for all.
While some are young immigrants earning high school credentials not afforded to them in their homeland, some others are middle-aged and battling back from a troubled past steeped in child abuse, drug addiction or crime. "One in five people in California are functionally illiterate. Most of them have had very negative experiences in school," said Thompson. "This school, for many of them, is the first place where they can learn in a warm, safe environment."
Thompson's classroom is a veritable rainbow coalition of excited learners. There's Jordan Haislip, 20, who said he has battled drug and alcohol abuse but has been sober for about a year. Haislip, who was honored by Thompson on Friday for perfect attendance this year, said he's hoping to earn his GED credential by next year. Then there's Diana Morales, 62, a mother of five who has 17 grandchildren. She came to Hayward Adult School to earn her GED and improve her writing skills so she could contribute to her church newsletter at Templo de la Cruz in Hayward.
And Ranjit Kaur, 19, an immigrant from New Delhi, India, said she hopes to become a singer after earning her high school credential in Thompson's class, "hopefully in 2004."
"The students need to experience successes, and that success comes in small steps," said Rose Hansen, project director of the transition to work department at Hayward School. As important as improving education is, Hansen says, the adult school also focuses on increasing job skills and nurturing students in a supportive environment.
Thompson, who authored a book on adult literacy titled, Fast Forward to Phonics, believes that life-stories presentations like the one held Friday are a big part of helping students move forward with their learning. "It takes a lot of courage for some of them to admit what they've done or gone through," she said. "They want to stop the cycle of whatever's been destroying them and provide better lives for their children."