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This 85-Year-Old East Dallas Man Shows It’s Never Too Late To Learn English

Learning a new language isn’t easy. It’s even harder if you haven’t been to school in decades. That hasn’t stopped 85-year-old Pablo Valverde, an East Dallas man who’s setting an example for his younger classmates.

This grandfather — soon he'll be a great-grandfather — is finally learning to write and read English.

A year ago, Valverde enrolled in the Dallas Independent School District’s adult education program. The more than 3,500 students in the English as a second language (ESL) classes come from countries like Mexico, Spain, Columbia, Ethiopia, China and Korea.

Valverde, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, only got as far as the third grade in his native country. He says he can speak English. But, like many of his classmates, he wants to go beyond that.

“Because I like to learn to read and write,” Valverde says. “My teacher, he been teaching me. Little by little, one of these days I’m gonna learn.”

Determined to learn the language

On a recent morning inside a Dallas classroom, students learned how to introduce themselves and ask each other questions in English. Teacher Jorge Saucedo told Valverde and a classmate to stand up and practice.

Student: “Hi, my name is Adriana.”
Valverde: “My name is Pablo.”
Student: “What color is your eyes?
Valverde: “My eyes? I’m not sure. They’re green or whatever you can see. You name it. You name it.”

The class erupted in laughter. At 85, Valverde hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Nor has he lost his desire to learn.

He stopped going to school after his father, a miner, died from lung disease. He was just 40. Valverde was 8.

He says his father’s death affected him. The family was poor and slept in one room. Pablo took up a job delivering bread by pushing a wooden cart. He’d get up at 4 a.m. and earned only three pesos a day. Eventually, he saved up enough money to buy a bike so he could make faster deliveries. It’s the same perseverance he had as a child that pushes him to improve his English today.

“Right now, I’m very happy right here with my teacher and the students because at my house I’ve been doing nothing but watching TV, and I don’t want to do that cause I’m gonna die too quick,” Valverde says. “I would like to live few more years if I can.”

‘What are you waiting for?’

Valverde came to the United States when he was 18, working first as a dishwasher at a drugstore in El Paso. He would later learn about framing, roofing and remodeling. He retired from the construction business at age 63. His teacher says he’s impressed with Valverde’s commitment to education.

“His attendance is great. He’s always here. It doesn’t matter what the weather may be outside. Of course, he lives nearby so that helps out a lot,” Saucedo says. “He’s very independent and he’s very respectful. And he’s very funny for an older gentleman. He’s very funny, so the whole class enjoys him.”

Mirella Patlan, who’s 34 and sits next to Valverde, says students look up to their classmate, who drives to school in a red pickup truck and always wears a tweed hat. She says sometimes younger students don’t have that same level of dedication. Rafael Fermin, who’s 46 and originally from Spain, says Valverde gives others hope. He admires his enthusiasm.

Dallas school district officials say Valverde’s actually not the most senior student in the program. There’s a 90-year-old student in Carrollton and a couple of other students in their 80s enrolled in classes.

Valverde says he’d like to use his new skills by finding some part-time work. And he has some advice for other immigrants who want to learn English.

“First thing I’m gonna tell ‘em is what you waiting for? Let’s go,” Valverde says. “Never it’s too late to learn for me. I don’t think it’s gonna be late for you either.”

Read more about Valverde and see pictures of him in the classroom on KERA’s Class of ’17 education blog.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.