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  • A Lifelong Dream

    by Dynishal P. Gross

    In her own heart and mind, Bibi Shahabodeen is a writer. She wants to write about “anything and everything!” Shahabodeen bubbles over with tales of her childhood on a Guyanese sugarcane farm, her youth in Surinam, and the struggles of living as an immigrant mother in New York City. Until recently, the tools and confidence to put these stories down on paper were not within her grasp.

    Shahabodeen’s formal education ended after the eighth grade when her mother removed her from school to prepare for an arranged marriage. She did not miss school, which had long meant strict physical discipline. “Teacher whipped the hell out of us,” she recalls. Before age three, Shahabodeen had learned to read at home. Leaving school as a teenager meant she had to seek informal learning opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills to support a growing family.

    While Shahabodeen learned to negotiate employment, parenting and housing responsibilities in her mother country, immigration to the United States in 1993 brought new challenges. Here, her lack of academic credentials meant settling for low-paying jobs. It was difficult to make ends meet.

    “Working at a store making $5 an hour is not enough to run a household,” she learned. “But with a pen and paper, you are your own boss. There’s nothing better than that.” Shahabodeen was motivated to seek out academic assistance, but first had to overcome a major hurdle: her youngest child, then aged nine months, first stopped progressing physically, then rapidly regressed.

    “He stopped holding up his head, stopped standing up, stopped crawling,” Shahabodeen said. For almost two years, she devoted herself full-time to caring for her son. “I never, never gave up. Today he is talking, jumping and dancing.”

    Her experience with her son rekindled her desire to write. Motivated to write about his struggles, all that was missing for her was knowledge of a program which could accommodate her limited hours. She found an advertisement on the Bronx Net public access channel for the New York Public Library’s Centers for Reading and Writing. In September of this year, Bibi began attending classes at the library’s Fordham Branch where she found a supportive volunteer tutor and staff, as well as a peer group of other learners of many ages and backgrounds. Today Shahabodeen’s desire to learn is so strong that when child care problems prevent her from attending class, she uses videos and adult learning magazines to work on her own. Eventually, Shahabodeen hopes to earn her GED and enroll in college. She says of her thirst for learning, “This desire began a long time ago. I know that I’m good at it, and I won’t give up.” #

    Library branches in every borough offer programs for adults interested in learning to read, prepare for the GED examination, speak English or use technology. For more information call (212) 576-0071 or visit branch/literacy/index.html.

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