The dark-haired girl, maybe six-years old, darted from behind the plate-glass window and exclaimed to her mother, “Snow flakes are falling.” In a soft voice, the mother replied using a different language. The child turned and switched quickly from English to her mother’s language without missing a beat. As I waited in front of the small business, I commented to the mother that her daughter was fortunate to grow up bilingual. The mother smiled and shared that her two children preferred to speak English but she wanted them to speak Vietnamese, too. I then asked how long her family had been in the United States and where her daughter attended school.
I expected a simple response but she responded with a story far more in-depth than I anticipated. In our hurried lives, we often aren’t privy to the back channels in another’s world. In that moment, I stopped to listen.
Her father had been associated with the U.S. government as a young man during the U.S.-Vietnamese War. After the fall of Saigon and unification of North and South Vietnam, he was incarcerated in a re-education camp while his young family attempted to survive without him. This woman, now a mother of two, described a harsh life. Her schooling ended at age twelve. She went to work with her mother washing clothes seven days a week, subsisting on a bowl of rice twice daily.
In her slightly accented voice, she described to me a life of bleak survival as a child and teenager. As she unfolded her story, it became a bit murky about how her father made it to the United States and eventually brought his family here as well. However, the point of her conversation was not about her early life, but about her own children and their education here.
This thirty-something mother now works seven days a week in America doing service work just as her mother and she did years ago in Vietnam. As her own mother took the risk to come to America so her children could have a better life, this mother also shared that she wanted the best life possible for her own two children – both U.S. citizens by birth. I asked her if she wanted to finish school herself and she replied, “… not until my children have their education. It’s the most important reason I work so hard. I want them to do well in school so they can have the life they want. America provides that chance for them. I was forced to quit school in seventh grade because of my father’s association with the United States government. Here, my children have so many opportunities that were denied to me … I can read and write in two languages so for right now I am fine, but one day I will finish high school, too.”
She smiled at her daughter spinning to catch the tiniest of flakes falling on outstretched fingers while we continued to talk under the gray sky. She said, “There is nothing more important than their education. I think people in this country don’t appreciate what it’s like to live somewhere where going to school can be denied. No-one should ever take an education for granted. I’m grateful to live in this country and for my children to be able to go to school.”
My own parents and grandparents didn’t take America’s educational commitments for granted either. My grandfather didn’t finish high school. My parents were high school graduates. They all expected me to graduate from college. They were grateful for the basic education I received in a small town steeped in deep South poverty.
My high school counselor was also my earth science, chemistry, biology and physics teacher. The football coach was my government teacher. Most of the educators in my hometown school grew up there. Some teachers never attended a four-year college but were products of “normal schools.” These educators, however, all were revered in the community even though we didn’t experience much of what we refer to today as “high quality” teaching. We filled in a lot of workbooks in elementary school, read a lot of textbooks in high school, and listened to a lot of lectures at the chalkboard all the way through school. Some of us passed. Some failed. And, each year there were fewer of us left to graduate.
Still, my parents and those of my friends appreciated my teachers’ efforts because their children were being provided a pathway to what that “greatest generation” considered a better life for their “baby boomer” children.
Despite the perspective of parents in my mid-twentieth century community, the educational system of that time was not what it is today. There was no compulsory attendance law then and I watched peers drop out of my class to begin work on their family’s farms or in the local mill (some left in late elementary school even.) Much of our work demanded us to be passive and compliant learners. We attended schools still segregated despite Brown v. Board of Education and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. There were no special education services – the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was still a dream. I wasn’t that well prepared for college – my high school offered no AP courses, just one year of French taught by a teacher who only spoke English, and no math courses beyond Trigonometry.
However, public education was valued by my community’s parents in the 20th century just as strongly as the Vietnamese mother values her children’s education now.
Because of public education, any child who walks through the doors of America’s Statue of Liberty schools will be served by a public school’s teachers. We don’t deny children an education because of who their parents are. Instead, we Americans educate all children, regardless of their parents’ economic status, religion or lack thereof, race, ethnicity, or political beliefs. Unlike some countries, we educate boys and we educate girls. We educate children with handicaps. We educate children for whom English is a second language. We educate the children of those who are incarcerated in our prisons.
It does not matter in the United States who you are when it comes to attending our schools.
During this Thanksgiving break, I am grateful for the public education that’s been offered across my family’s generations and to young Americans in every town, city, county, and state today.
And, I offer thanks to the Vietnamese mother who reminded me of that.