It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday, and a small crowd is waiting in a dim and dusty hallway in Kingfield. Two men murmur to each other in Spanish, but otherwise, the only sounds are people shifting in their seats on a former pew placed against the wall, or the soft crunch of sneakers pacing on the scuffed terrazzo floor.
Suddenly, the hallway is filled with light and excitement as the front door of the former building is thrown open. Latino Economic Development Center teacher Sara Lopez whirls past the waiting men and women in a flurry of excitement and bags to unlock a classroom full of computers, physically and metaphorically opening a portal to a new part of the world for the students in her computer literacy class.
“I want to be like everyone else,” said Leonicio Delgado, a skinny former carpenter in his mid-thirties. “I want to be on the same base.”
Renato, who didn’t want to give his last name, said he feels like he’s failing as a parent. His daughter’s elementary school gives a lot of homework that has to be done on the computer, he said in Spanish as Lopez translated. When his children want to go to a cyber café in their neighborhood, he said, he feels uncomfortable that he doesn’t really know what they do there.
Many others in the class repeat those same themes in interviews—they feel like the world is leaving them behind as it embraces computers. And it’s not as if they’re the stereotypical grandparent, either. All but one person in the classroom appears to be under 45, and many have young children.
A few, though, look at the class with a sense of humor.
"I like to buy cars and fix them up and sell them, and it is easier online," Loredo Ruiz said, wiggling his moustache and smiling as he groped for a word. "Now I am retired, I have more time. Class is very exciting, it is interesting, but it is hard for my hands to click (the mouse)!"
As class begins, Lopez has to take several minutes to help one student remember his password so today’s lesson on emails can start. Some students dive in, exploring Gmail through trial and error while Lopez works on the password problem, but others stare nervously at their screens and activity sheets while they wait for Lopez to finish. The scale of these students’ disconnection with the digital world is startling—it's one reason why Lopez starts the class off with mouse aerobics and a brief lesson on the basic components of a computer.
In some ways, watching Lopez at work it resembles giving someone a tour of a new house—the bedroom is here, the kitchen there. “Baby steps,” Lopez calls it.
It’s a surprising sight, and leaves one imagining of how alienating it could be to go through life, not even knowing what to call that box attached to the computer screens that pervade the world.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” Delgado said of the learning process. “When you first learn, you think it’s to complicated. I just take it step by step, but some people think it’s beyond them.”
This alienation becomes dreadfully real for some students. Until he was laid off, Delgado found he’d hit a glass ceiling at his job with a cabinet-maker, because he didn’t have the computer skills to operate much of the factory’s machinery.
“I was afraid of those” computers at his old job, he said. “I made excuses all the time to keep from learning how to operate them.”
“Now, I’ve tasted a little bit and I like it,” he added with a grin.