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New York Daily News

Dad's Illiteracy A Big Lesson For Little Girl


March 17, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Ray Rivera held out a hand callused by a lifetime of whatever work he could find and walked his 9-year-old daughter into the swirling snow from the East Harlem school he hopes will give her all the chances he never had.

"I look back and think I could have been so many things if I could read," he said.

His daughter's name is Victoria, and she emerged from Public School 38 on E. 103rd St. late yesterday morning in a black parka, laughing as her long eyelashes blinked away the outsized snowflakes. She is in the third grade, which means she will soon take the test all third-graders must pass to be promoted to the fourth.

"My teacher was talking about that," Victoria said.

Her 55-year-old father walked beside her in a laborer's insulated boiler suit, saying he knows too well what can happen when there is no such test.

"I know what it is to go through a system and not learn anything," he said. "They just put you through to get rid of you."

Rivera said he came to New York from Puerto Rico when he was not yet 6. He barely spoke English when he started at Public School 39 in East Harlem and he was still illiterate when he left Junior High School 45.

"When I got to high school I couldn't even read," he said. "You go to class and stare up into the sky. The kids who know a little bit make fun of you, and that's why you want to leave school."

He was sent into the world unable to apply for a good job, much less get one.

"You can't read an application," he said. "I was like lost."

He did the manual labor those who could read did not want.

"Hard jobs," he said. "Whatever job you could get."

But he kept on.

"I was a fighter," he said. "I pulled through."

His great reward was the daughter he picked up at PS 38 at 11 a.m. yesterday. School let out early for parent-teacher conferences, and Rivera and his wife were scheduled to meet Victoria's teacher at 5 p.m. He was not worried.

"She's a very smart girl," Rivera said.

He had taught himself to read well enough to help Victoria with her reading after school.

"Since she was little. My wife and I," Rivera said. "If you teach them when they're little, they pick up quickly."

He may flood with regret as he looks back on his life, but he fills with hope when he looks forward to his daughter's.

"For her to have a future, college at least," he said.

"Or I might go in the circus," Victoria said.

Victoria laughed again and waved her left hand against the snow blowing in her face as they turned down Second Ave. The right remained in her father's, small and soft, the hand of a girl that will have a chance to choose her work.

"All I could have done," her father said.

A half-hour later, Mayor Bloomberg happened to arrive for a press event at a community center across a parking lot from PS 38. He defended his surprise firings to guarantee the Panel for Educational Policy did not vote against his plan to end social promotions. He might have been speaking of Rivera when he spoke of untold thousands who had been sent into the world without the most basic skills.

"They are never going to take part in the great American Dream," Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg departed in a black mayormobile that turned down Second Ave. past PS 38. One of Victoria's third-grade classmates, 8-year- old Gary Boswell, and his father, Garry Mangum, had just finished a parent-teacher conference.

"She said he can pass," the father said. "She would like him to do a little more reading at night for an hour."

Gary headed to a candy store for some white-chocolate peanut- butter cups. He reported that his teacher hoped no one was left behind, but had taught his class a chant: First grade babies

Second grade cats

Third grade angels

Fourth grade rats.

Gary explained, "When you feel real sad if you are left behind, at least you are reminded you can be an angel."

"Would you rather be an angel or a rat?" he was asked.

He answered in an instant.

"A rat," he said.

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