56: Education for Everyone

56: Education for Everyone

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Education for Everyone

Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.

~Confucius

“I have a student who needs a little extra help.” The teacher at the charter school where I worked as a reading tutor looked at me with worried blue eyes.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“It’s her basic grammar skills. Her family has moved around so much that she’s never really had the opportunity to learn things like what are verbs, nouns, pronouns — all those things other students learn in grade school. She told me she’s embarrassed not to know what the class is talking about during English class. Would you work with her?”

Of course I said yes, and the next day Victoria appeared in the library where I tutored students. Pretty, with long black hair and huge dark eyes, Victoria looked nervous. Before tackling the basics of grammar, I tried to help her feel more comfortable by getting to know more about her and her journey so far.

Nineteen years old and a senior in high school, Victoria had been moved through the school system almost as much as her family had moved around the country. Born in Texas, Victoria and her parents followed seasonal jobs from the south to the Canadian border and east to Pennsylvania. When we met, Victoria and her parents were living in Minnesota. Her father was working at a small factory while her mother worked as the cleaning woman for the owner of the factory. Victoria wanted nothing more than to get her high school diploma so she could work full-time and help her family. But she had a lot of ground to cover, and it was my job to help her.

I found some middle school–level grammar books, and Victoria and I got to work. As we studied grammar together, I learned more about her. Some of her stories made me smile, but some made me want to cry — like the story she told me about being targeted by a teacher as an example of a student who “couldn’t” learn. Or the stories she told me about other students who assumed, since Victoria was Hispanic, that she was in the country illegally and should go back to the country they assumed she was born in.

“I was born in America,” Victoria told me. “Why would anyone think I wasn’t without bothering to ask me first?”

It was a good question, and I didn’t have an answer. But as I worked with Victoria, I wondered how many times I’d made the same assumptions about people myself.

Victoria sailed through her assignments, and by the end of the school year, she was much more comfortable with grammar and high school literature. Together, we read some of the classics, including A Tale of Two Cities, our favorite. Although the book was set in Europe, Victoria told me it reminded her of America.

“There’s more than one America,” she commented when we finished the book. “There’s really a lot of Americas just like there are a lot of Americans.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Victoria thought for a moment before answering. “There’s the America we see on TV where everyone looks the same and thinks the same way, like in an old movie. Then there’s the America of now where we all look different and think different, but we don’t really notice how different we are once we get to know each other.”

I agreed with her. “And then the differences really don’t seem to matter.”

“Exactly,” Victoria said with a smile.

The day Victoria graduated from high school was one I will never forget.

The girl selected to give the graduation speech had a last-minute moment of anxiety and couldn’t bring herself to get up on the stage and speak. Desperate, the principal asked Victoria if she’d be willing to read her classmate’s speech. Victoria agreed.

From my seat in the audience, I watched in amazement as the shy, withdrawn girl I’d met in September walked onto the stage with the poise of a movie star. She read her classmate’s prepared speech with ease and then, looking up at the audience, added a few thoughts of her own.

“I came to this school as an American citizen,” she said, “but an American citizen who never stayed in one school long enough to really learn anything. Today, I’m graduating knowing that I’ve learned so much over the past year. I’ve learned about things like nouns and adverbs, but I’ve also learned how people care about each other and will help if you ask — or even if you don’t. Sometimes, they can see you need help, and they do what they can to make sure you get it. Thank you for helping me when I wasn’t sure how to ask.”

Victoria smiled at me, and I felt my eyes fill with tears. We’ve lost touch over the years, but I think about her often. I may have helped her fill in some gaps in her education, but she helped me remember what a truly awesome country we live in, one where education is free and available to everyone — whether you ask for it or not.

~Nell Musolf

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