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We Hold This Truth to Be Self-Evident

Title – We Hold This Truth to Be Self-Evident

By – Elizabeth Napp

He was still a child when his parents had to leave his native Paraguay in search of a better life in the North. The second to oldest in a family of six, he took care of the farm and his younger siblings while awaiting word of his future. Not quite old enough to fully understand the magnitude of his responsibilities, but not quite young enough to forget them, he labored throughout the day and studied throughout the night. His mother and father had always taught him of the power of education to transform a person’s life and with a little luck and a lot of determination, they hoped to give him opportunities unheard of in their native land. Yes, with a little luck and a lot of determination, the family would be reunited in New York. And so, one day, when he boarded the plane with his brothers and sisters, he knew his life had changed, but he didn’t fully understand how.

I had the pleasure of meeting him in his early years in a public school in New York. I had been given the mandate to prepare a class of English Language Learners for a state-mandated test in world history and geography. The students had just mastered basic conversational English and it was my task to start preparing them for a test loaded with words like flourish and prosper while simultaneously teaching them concepts like the Neolithic Revolution and the Protestant Reformation. The enormity of the course for an English language learner was like the academic equivalent of Hillary and Tenzing scaling Everest. For only through passing the state-mandated test was a diploma awarded and so like many intrepid explorers who had gone before, we had no choice but to succeed.

There is something about teaching the most disadvantaged that is akin to the explorer’s journey. There is a kind of knowledge that failure is not an option, the stakes are too high. For only through education are the “tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” given a chance to profoundly change their lives. Education, and particularly public education, is one of the few paths to a better life in this country and in the world. And so, when students who frequently go without dinner and work a full eight hours after a full day of school to pay their rent, sit before you in a classroom, you feel the responsibility of an expedition leader in dangerous terrain. You understand that your efforts combined with theirs will make the difference between success and failure. You understand that every day on task and in the pursuit of mastery will make a difference in their lives.

But truth be told, this boy only needed an avenue to success. You could have handed him the textbook and idly sat down and he would have read the entire book within a week and asked for another. He required very little for his thirst for learning was so great. And so, as he sat before me eager to learn, I knew that he would not only succeed but that he would scale incredible heights, that he would be a star.

Towards the end of the course, he came to me with tears in his eyes. The family had to be separated again. They could not find an apartment that would rent to their large household. He would have to move to another district, a district that had few services for English Language Learners. In addition, the district would insist that he take the state-mandated test in June even though he had only completed three-quarters of the first year of a two year course! It was then that I told him what I intuitively felt the very first day I had met him.

You will be successful wherever you go. They could exile you like Napoleon to some remote island and you will still find your way to greatness. Always remember that.

He looked at me and smiled. Needless to say, he passed the state-mandated test in June with high marks. And he returned to our school in the fall. We quickly enrolled him in our Honors and AP Program. He flourished having just recently learned the meaning of the word. Naturally, he graduated with honors and was the only student that year accepted to Harvard University on a full scholarship.

And I know at this point what you are thinking. “This is not an inspirational teacher story. This is an inspirational student story. This boy was like a Michelangelo or a Picasso or a Neruda. He was born to greatness.” And that may be so. But even a Michelangelo or a Picasso or a Neruda needs a break, a chance.

And that is what the public school system does every day. It gives every child a chance to rise above his circumstances and create with the angels. It gives every child a chance to excel and achieve, but only if every teacher and administrator and support personnel realizes the sanctity of our mission, that to educate a child is to transform a child, that to educate a child is to open a world of possibilities, that to educate a child is to change the world.

One day, this wonderful boy will become a great man, a man who may help restructure the economy of his homeland or build bridges between warring factions or enter a classroom and contribute to the transformation of a child. And yes, this is a teacher’s inspirational story. For it is not in claiming every victory in the life of a child that we change a child’s life. It is by helping a child discover the tools upon which to build an amazing future that we make a difference. And the difference that we make is not our efforts alone. but the combined efforts of many amazing educators and parents and students alike that make the miracle of public education happen every day in every public classroom of this great nation.

Yes, there are many reasons to be proud of this great nation, but perhaps the greatest of all is our commitment to public education

. For through public education, we create opportunities unheard of in other lands. By not assigning a child to a vocational or academic track by the ninth grade, we hold this truth to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that no man knows the destiny of another.


Elizabeth Napp

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