Education & friendship in the Sandhills

by Jack Dodson for The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC)

Summer 2010

Sam Jordan’s Sandhills Community College GED sits on display in his office at the back of his auto body shop. It’s new, acquired in May, when Jordan was 45 years old, and he says he shows it off to everyone who comes in. Jordan says he couldn’t have earned it without his teacher, whom he addresses as “My Professor” – Fred Renner, an 85-year-old man who lives in Pinehurst, who taught him to read and write in English. They spent nearly every day together for the last five or six years as Jordan learned the language.

It was in 1993 that Jordan left the country he’s named for, where he’d grown up. Back then, his name wasn’t Jordan – it was Osama Ahmed. He was a traveler, so he began wandering around the world, until he ended up in Boston one day. He got a job at an auto repair shop, met a girl and got married.

“I came to the United States and I really liked it,” he says. “When I came here I said to myself, ‘This is it. This is the greatest place in existence. I’m not going to leave unless they kill me. When I came here I didn’t have a skill, I didn’t know English – absolutely, it was like falling off a tree.”

Jordan began working at an auto body shop, though he didn’t know English very well. His employer ended up sending him to take mechanics classes in New Jersey, where he learned his trade and picked up a little bit of the English language. His employer paid for the classes, and Jordan developed a stronger interest in cars.

In 1997, his company moved to Moore County. So he came down, but his wife stayed in Boston.

It was at the company’s new shop where Jordan and his teacher met. Renner, a longtime antique car lover, would come in and talk to Jordan about restoring cars. They developed a friendship pretty quickly, they say, talking about old cars.

One time when Renner came to hang out with Jordan, his new friend wasn’t there.

Jordan had recently opened his own body shop – a small, quiet business run from the side of the road in Carthage. His building has no sign; he says he likes to keep his business small, restoring antique cars and working with people he knows.

So Renner found Jordan in his new shop, and stopped in to say hello. But he was running late, he says.

Renner told Jordan he was going to the Moore County Literacy Council to learn how to teach English. The nonprofit is a Southern Pines-based organization that pairs volunteers with people who have trouble reading, writing and speaking English.

“He said, ‘What are you going to school for?'” Renner says. “And I said, ‘Well, to learn from the Literacy Council how to teach people to read.'”

So Jordan asked if Renner could teach him. He says all he wanted to do was learn.

And by some stroke of fate, or perhaps through some phone calls by Jordan, as Renner suggests, the two men were paired together. It was the start of a long-term project beginning with improving Jordan’s reading and writing, leading eventually to a GED.

“I really think behind the scenes, Sam learned very quickly how to lobby,” Renner says. “In a couple days, I got a phone call from the Literacy Council saying they had a client for me – Osama Ahmed.”

Jordan was starting from a fourth-grade reading level. He had only spoken English a few years, so he had a long way to go. He says learning how to read meant a more normal life; he wanted to live the American dream, in a sense, hoping to really understand the language and the concepts of American life.

“So they gave me an assessment test, and I graded fourth-grade. So I read and I wrote on a fourth-grade level,” Jordan says. “At first when I came to the country, I was very poor and I needed to catch up with people my age. So I started working – heavily working – and that was my main goal, to catch up in society.”

The two men studied together almost every night. Neither of them missed a single meeting for the two years they were at the Literacy Council. And throughout the process, they say their friendship grew stronger.

Once the two men had finished all the work they could do at the Literacy Council, back in 2008, they weren’t ready to be finished. Jordan was reading at a high school level by this point, and he’d learned everything he could via the nonprofit, so he was told the next step was his GED.

It was a slow process. The two men went, nearly every day, to Sandhills Community College to take classes. Jordan had to pass social studies, math, English and science. But English proved to be the hardest. Renner and Jordan had expected the math to be difficult, so they approached it from a mechanic’s standpoint.

“We started with wrenches because he’s in the car business,” Renner says.

But it was the suddenly complicated English where Jordan ran into trouble. Eventually, though, he passed his exam and after nearly a decade of work, he had a GED.

“I passed the writing, and I get the news,” Jordan says. “It’s the most exciting news I’ve ever heard.”

And for the two of them, the whole experience didn’t end when Sam got his GED this past May. After all, they’d been working closely together for nearly six years, and they’d developed a strong friendship. >

So now they see each other nearly every day. Jordan will call Renner and see what he’s up to, and almost every day they’ll go out to lunch. Sometimes they just go for a drive in the antique MG that Renner bought from Jordan a few years ago.

Renner helped Jordan achieve one more thing, though – getting his American citizenship. When Jordan was having trouble getting his documents through the system, Renner called Howard Coble, the House representative for North Carolina.

With a little pushing from Renner and some work from Coble’s office, Jordan was finally a U.S. citizen. That’s when he changed his name. He even went straight to vote as soon as he got it, voting for the first time in his mid-40s.

“He never quit. I thought he’d give up on me, but he never did,” Jordan says. “He’s the greatest I’ve ever known. It was like angel comes from the sky to me to help me out. I consider he is a father for me.”

 

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