At 89, Ramdas Sooklal is living proof that it's never too late to learn and fulfil your dreams. Sooklal, who had to leave school at nine, after being attacked by a dog, has returned to classes 80 years later, to catch up on his reading and writing. A student of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (Alta) in Sangre Grande, Sooklal joins 11 other students every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours to read and write.
Sooklal's classmates are as young as some of his 25 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Paula Lucie-Smith is the founder and CEO of Alta, an organisation that was created to address the enormous social problem of widespread illiteracy in T&T.
Lucie-Smith was announced as a laureate in the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence for 2012, in the field of Public & Civic Contributions. Three of Sooklal's daughters are Alta tutors, who teach students who were either deprived of schooling or not academically inclined to learn.
Enrolling in classes last year, was, no doubt, one of the most important decisions Sooklal has taken in his life. "It was a little difficult getting back to studying, but I think I have successfully met the challenge. It is truly a new life experience. Learning something new has definitely kept me on my toes," said Sooklal. Sooklal is in the second level of the literacy course. He has to complete the third level and a spelling programme before graduating.
Don't take things for granted
Sooklal said he welcomed his status as a role model and hoped to encourage other elderly people to pursue their long-held aspirations. "Never give up and take things for granted." Describing his class as fun and rewarding, Sooklal said, "It's never too late to learn." His eagerness to attend Alta classes stems from his passion for the Bible.
Sooklal said Alta had improved his reading and writing skills tremendously. "I can now understand what I read and write." Upon entering Standard Three at Plum Mitan CM Primary School, Sooklal said he had to give up school after he was attacked by a dog that chewed off part of his right ankle.
"That was in 1932. I used to go to school barefooted, wearing shirts made from flour bags. I never owned a schoolbag. I held in my hand one copybook and a textbook. It's not like today, where children have everything at their disposal," said Sooklal, sitting in the living room of his Sangre Grande, home on Tuesday. The wound, Sooklal vividly recounted, took three years to heal.
But as Sooklal was gearing up to return to school, he was told his father Sookdaye Sooklal, the breadwinner in the family, could no longer work, because of an eye ailment.
As the second-eldest son, Sooklal, who had just turned 12, was sent to work on a nearby cocoa estate and farm, with his eldest brother, Mohan, to put food on the table. "Back then, you had to obey your parents. There was no ifs or buts. You do as you are told," Sooklal recalled. Sooklal said not finishing his education hurt him.
"The opportunity for an education was dashed from me." Having turned from student to farmer, Sooklal worked his fingers to the bone for 15 cents a day, while his brother reared livestock. Sooklal eventually shifted from agriculture to become a bus conductor, where he met his sweetheart Rosina Soodeen, who he later married in 1953.
As a conductor, Sooklal said, he had to write down the names of bus drivers and the routes he worked. "So I maintained my writing and spelling. But it was not of the best." Sooklal said his wife encouraged him to buy a parcel of land at Foster Road, Sangre Grande, for $200.
"Rosina was a little more educated than me and had a brain for business." A carat shed on the property was eventually converted into a makeshift shop called Standard Cafe, where the Sooklals sold coals, matches, sweets, pitch oil and cigarettes to the community to eke out a living and educate their eight children. "In no time flat, business started to boom. It showed that you didn't need education to run a business. All it took was a little common sense, hard work and dedication."
Follow your heart
Basking in his achievements, Sooklal said he always wanted to overcome his educational handicap, which other people his age might simply ignore. So, after much pleading from his daughter, Meela Heerah, one of Alta's tutors, to go back to school, Sooklal gave in. On April 28, Sooklal was one of three students from Alta who read to the public at the Bocas Lit Fest.
Their readings told of the hardships they endured and what deprived them of an education. They were asked to write about the movie The First Grader, a film based on the true story of Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan man, who enrolled in elementary education at 84, after the Kenyan government announced free universal education for its citizens. Sooklal said Maruge inspired him to follow his heart and lifelong dreams.