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Growing up poor shaped principal’s life

Immigrant StoriesGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

In September 2007, Paul Freeman, principal of Glenwood Springs High School, became a U.S. citizen. Paul was born and raised in Britain by his Irish parents who immigrated in the 1950s. Here he talks about how his childhood convinced him of the importance of education.Freeman: I was born into a very, very poor family. My parents are Irish, and they were economic migrants from Ireland in the 1950s. One of the first jobs my father had in Yorkshire, England, where I was born, was digging a railway tunnel. And the means by which they dug the railway tunnel was pretty similar to the way it would have been done in the 19th century. They dynamited sections of the tunnel and then the men got in there with their pickaxes and shovels and worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. They loaded the debris onto trucks and pulled it out, and that is how a railway tunnel got built.But it was work for my father who had had to leave school when he was 14. My mother became a domestic servant when she was 14. My mother came from a house where there wasn’t any description of a bathroom. She got water by crossing a field with a bucket. She dropped the bucket down into what they called a well, but I think you or I would describe it as a ditch that had water flowing in it. She lived in a two-room house with eight kids, lit by oil lamps, where the cooking was done over a peat fire. So it was about as impoverished a life as one could have. But she worked in the home of a well-educated Church of Ireland vicar, and it was there that she was able to observe a different way of life, and she recognized that education was at the heart of that. So, although my parents didn’t know what an education was, they wanted me to have one.Gallacher: How does growing up poor serve you in your work with children?Freeman: Well, it does mean that what one encounters during the rest of one’s life is highly pleasurable. We didn’t have good food. We didn’t have good clothes. There was no heating in the house. The snow used to blow in through the holes in the windows and mount on the ledge. So living in a warm house, for me, has been a pleasure that my children will just never understand. They imagine that people live in warm houses. I don’t imagine that. I think that to live in a warm house and be well-fed is a remarkable luxury. And the other luxuries I have had in my life like travel, going to the theater and books give me more pleasure than they might had I been born in more fortunate circumstances. I have no desire, at all, to go back to being poor. And one of the things that I say to kids is that I have been poor, and I am never going to be poor again, and I strongly advise them never to be poor, and the way to avoid that is to get an education.Gallacher: What gifts did your parents give you?Freeman: I think the most important thing they gave me was self-confidence. They were always very supportive and very proud. I wouldn’t have had to achieve very much at all to still have enjoyed their unconditional love and praise.And I think if you grow up with your parents telling you that you are smart or that you are attractive, regardless of whether it is true or not, does give one the self-confidence that is a great asset in life. Because, with self-confidence, you tend to think in any situation that you are going to be able to manage it and deal with it and be successful because your parents told you from a very early age that you would. That was the most important gift they gave me.


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