Connie Newell of Bell Island says she quit school in Grade 6 because students would tease her about her epileptic seizures.
But when you sit and chat with the 44-year-old and probe a little deeper into her past, you learn that closing her schoolbooks wasn’t entirely her decision.
“The principal preferred that I was out of there because when I was taking seizures, when I came out of them, the children would be making fun of me. And that would cause me to fight with them. And the madder I’d get, the more seizures I’d take,” Newell said.
One of 11 siblings, Newell said her parents did as the school suggested and kept her home.
When it’s suggested that a similar situation would likely be handled differently today, she nods her head slowly. If she has any regrets though, she does a great job of hiding them.
Back then, she said, as a 13-year-old who had repeated Grade 5 and was struggling in Grade 6, she was happy to call it quits in the classroom.
Newell got pregnant and married at age 16. By age 20 she had her second baby and had divorced. She has never remarried and has raised her daughters — ages 28 and 24 — on her own.
She is also a single parent to her 14-year-old son, Tyler Newell.
Newell recalls trying to help her oldest children with their homework.
“They’d ask me what a word was and I couldn’t tell them. I’d try to sound it out but still couldn’t do it.”
Often she sent the girls next door to her sisters or to her parents home to get the help they needed.
Reading prescription bottles was always a challenge, she said. She recognized pills by their colour rather than by their names.
“But now I can pronounce some of their names and some I still can’t pronounce.”
Newell enrolled in an adult literacy program (at the time offered by Rabbittown Learners) on Bell Island in 2007.
“I didn’t know when I first went there if I was just going to walk out. I had to learn what they teach in Grade 3 today, right up to where I am now.”
She continues to study with the Bell Island Adult Basic Education Program and is now studying Level 3 — the final level towards her Grade 12 equivalency.
The program is funded by the provincial government and is offered at the Wabana Complex.
Newell says she’ll stay in school all summer and doesn’t plan on putting away her books anytime soon.
Like her father and several brothers, she’s determined to complete a carpentry trade.
“As you can see, I’m pretty good at it because this was a bedroom,” she says sitting in her living room.
Newell also laid the flooring and did other carpentry work throughout her home. Since going back to school, Newell has been helping Tyler with his homework. They often sit side by side at the table working on their assignments.
Tyler comes home midway through the interview. He’s proud of his mother, he says, for going back to school.
“She helps me do my homework.”
Newell has three grandchildren, two of whom live in this province. She loves to read to her oldest grandson, Connor, who starts kindergarten in September.
“If I hadn’t gone back to school I’d be able to read small stories but I’d just say the words and keep going because I didn’t know about the commas or the periods.”
That’s all changed now, she said, thanks to her instructor Paul Brazil and all the supports she gets at school.
Brazil said when Newell started the program several years ago, she became frustrated easily. Her determination kept her coming back.
“Everybody advances at their own pace and we encourage everybody to help each other. Connie has continued to work through the program and has shown steady progress,” Brazil said.
Newell was presented with the Telegram’s Learner Achievement Award at the Peter Gzowski Invitational (PGI) Golf Tournament at Bally Haly Golf and Curling Club in St. John’s on Friday.
The tournament raises money for various literacy programs throughout the province.
Paul Lahey, chairman of PGI for Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador says the Telegram Learner Achievement Award recognizes an individual who, after quitting school, eventually recognizes the importance of education and overcomes whatever obstacles they face in order to head back to school.
During the interview earlier in the week, Newell said it’s still hard for her to believe she’s being recognized for her accomplishments in the classroom.
“I never thought I’d get this far. I certainly never thought I’d get an award for learning,” she said.