The Benefit of Learning

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An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. —-Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always believed that education is the most powerful way to combat poverty. I used to tell my students that knowledge is power, and that it is a great gift to each of us that the first twelve years of it is free from the government. Sometimes they pushed back on my enthusiasm interpreting mandatory attendance at school as an onerous thing. Many spoke eagerly of reaching the age at which they would be able to drop out and get on with living the way they so desired. I usually confronted them with arguments designed to convince them that learning is a great privilege that is often denied by authoritarian governments.

In my own lifetime I have heard of grievous examples of governments that persecuted and even executed teachers, leaving entire generations of children without even the most basic educations. This was done, of course, to eradicate thinking and the ability to discover truths. Dictators want to be in charge of the dispensing of information so that it benefits their causes. Sometimes when I explained such things I would challenge my students to never ever allow anyone to take away their rights to schooling. When I put it that way, many of them suddenly became far more eager to partake in the lessons that I and my fellow teachers presented to them.

Unfortunately there always seemed to be a few who were not the least bit interested in pursuing knowledge under any circumstances. Instead they wanted to get out of the need to attend school as soon as possible. They had big plans that did not include what they considered to be a waste of their time. Some also had to deal with poverty. Their parents wanted them to get to work as soon as possible. Extended schooling did not appear to be an option for them. Sadly by following this pathway they generally only managed to keep the grinding cycle of economic disadvantage continuing for one more generation.

I truly enjoyed being part of the KIPP Charter schools because above all were the ideas that there could be no excuses for not taking full advantage of all educational opportunities, and each day at school was focused on hard work. Our promise as teachers was that we would support our students in their journey to and eventually through college. The attitude that we all believed was that together we would be to provide our KIPPsters the necessary tools and attitudes for living better lives.

I have happily witnessed extraordinary results among so many of my former students. I have watched them earning multiple degrees and landing extraordinary jobs. I see photos of them standing in front of the beautiful homes that they have purchased and vicariously enjoyed their travels all over the world. Most of them have broken the crushing routines of grinding poverty that had sometimes stalked their families. Not only are their own lives more prosperous, but they have also been able to help their parents, It is so gratifying to see them using the skills, knowledge, and values that they learned first from all of us who are known as Big KIPPsters and later from their professors at universities and their mentors at work.

I recently became involved in a situation that brought home the sadness that I have always felt when I see young folks eschewing the marvelous opportunities that education provides. I was helping a very sweet woman move from one place to another. As we worked side by side for days I realized how bright she was, but also how her lack of resources had made her life so incredibly difficult. She had no savings, but rather had to rely on one paycheck to another just to provide the most basic standard of living. This meant that she was unable to scrape together enough money for the kind of deposits and down payments that are so often required in today’s real estate market. Unfortunately nobody in her family was able to help her either. In fact, she was quite distraught that so help was forthcoming from either her brothers or her adult children. She was on her own, and realizing that she had no way out my husband and I helped her.

Once we gave her the funds to secure a place to rent she realized that she was also alone in having to move her belongings and those of her elderly mother who lived with her. My husband and I spent a very long nine hours loading furniture and other items into and out of a moving van that we rented for her. While we worked side by side she reflected on her life and admitted that if she had been more attuned to becoming better educated, then perhaps her children might also have been inspired to stay in school and even earn degrees. Everyone’s lives might have been better in the long run instead of being so difficult.

I felt quite saddened by the woman’s situation because I know that her circumstances are repeated many times over in our country. Not all schools take the time or expend the effort to help young people and their parents understand the true value of education. They do not provide the unwavering support that is necessary to help those with few resources to navigate the treacherous waters of being admitted to college and then being able to earn a diploma. It takes money and relationships with people who care to help our poorest citizens to better themselves. 

The key to so many of the social problems faced by our society is to teach our young the importance of a lifetime of learning. Knowledge earns interest indeed. The more we all invest in it, the less we will have to spend on welfare programs in the future. Our bipartisan goal should be to insure that the greatest possible numbers of today’s children embrace and appreciate the value of schooling. When they learn, they earn, and we all benefit.

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The Real Education

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I enjoy nothing more than visiting with my former students. Like a mama bear I want to know that they are doing well. Whether by way of Facebook or through lunch or dinner dates I keep up with many of the young men and women who were once students in my classroom, and I always walk away feeling quite proud of them.

Sometimes they are apologetic that they are not working in their field of study. I can tell that they worry that I will think less of them. What they don’t realize is that I understand all too well the serpentine routes that life and careers often take. I know how difficult it may be to find that sweet spot that makes waking up each morning something to enjoy rather than dread. In my own case it took until I was in my thirties before I was certain that I had indeed chosen the right kind of work. Even then it took a few more years for me to develop confidence in my abilities.

In college I changed my major so many times that I ended up with over one hundred sixty hours of course work. For the longest time nothing seemed to fit, and even when I neared my graduation date I was being lured by professors who thought I might be a good candidate for the creative writing major at my school or even for a degree in art, both tempting ideas. I finally had to tell myself that enough was enough and I launched a career in elementary education that actually never really gelled. My first position was in the intermediate grades teaching mathematics. I became sought after for my minor rather than my major and my one foray into the lower grades demonstrated that I was meant to be a teacher of older students. By the end of my career I was teaching high school freshmen and sophomores and loving every single minute of the day. Eventually I mentored teachers and found my real niche.

My husband was a sociology major who went into banking. His best friend, also a sociology major, went into sales. One of my brothers was a marketing major who became a firefighter. In fact, the vast majority of the people that I have known ended up doing things that might never have occurred to them had not some grand opportunity presented itself. For most of us the world of work takes many different twists and turns.

These days it’s more difficult than ever for college graduates to find jobs that ideally match their interests and coursework. It used to be that a liberal arts major was a great way of entering a wide variety of careers. Now such a degree is far less valuable and sometimes even those who earn honors in college find themselves working in jobs that they might have landed right out of high school. The days in which diplomas from universities were a sure thing are long gone, and it is quite distressing to young graduates. All too often they find themselves having to be incredibly creative and flexible in finding jobs unless they have extremely high grades and particular skills.

We hear a great deal about careers in the STEM fields but the reality is that the technology and engineering majors provide the best prospects for jobs while the science and mathematics positions often require more advanced degrees or special training. Many who earn diplomas in these very difficult fields find themselves falling back on careers in teaching which are sometimes not particularly satisfactory to them. because of this there are a few too many educators who are simply marking time until a better offer comes along and then they are quickly out the door.

I always recommend that young men and women be open to careers that push them a bit out of the boxes that they have created for themselves. I also want them to understand that in today’s world they will most likely find themselves continually seeking new educational opportunities. Things are changing so quickly that they will never be able to simply be content with what they learned in a distant past. They will be trained and retrained again and again. Much as with limits in Calculus they will slowly approach closer and closer approximations of what they really want to do but may never actually finish the learning process.

I have a student that I thought might one day become president. Four years at a school in Washington D.C. taught him that politics is a cut throat business in which he has no desire to engage. He is now coding software. Another student with a business major worked for a time in corporate America and actually did quite well, but he now uses his acumen in his own thriving furniture building business. A student with an accounting major is managing several companies for an entrepreneur. An architecture student is building and renovating houses. A psychology major is successful in real estate. In other words, so many of my students have learned that their degrees have taught them how to think and to quickly learn knew skills and ideas which they are parlaying into interesting professions that they never considered entering but they truly enjoy.

I would tell any young person to think of college as a stepping stone. The degrees that they have earned demonstrate that they are able to learn a variety of information and that they have a willingness to work hard, forego instant gratification, and complete projects in a timely manner. Those are invaluable abilities that will serve them well regardless of the kind of work that they ultimately do. Those who will be successful are the men and women who show up ready to work day in and day out. They learn something new wherever they go and use that information to continuously improve themselves. They are ready to take risks and give it their all. Getting the degree was just the training. The real education comes on the job.

Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

There Must Be A Better Way

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Here in Houston we have had a number of locally famous doctors. Among them was a bonafide Texan named Red Duke. Red worked on trauma cases in an emergency room where some of the most seriously injured arrived again and again in hopes of miracles. God only knows how many lives Dr. Duke saved during his career. I know for certain that he was responsible for rescuing the daughter of one of my dear friends from the brink of death. The young girl was brought to him from an horrific auto accident barely breathing. The family had been told that things looked grim and they were preparing themselves for the worst. Dr. Duke went to work on her broken and battered body, and she not only survived, but went on to lead a very normal and happy life.

The interesting thing about Red Duke is that he was also a kind of celebrity here in Houston because he regularly appeared on a health spot on one of the local television stations. He was appealing because he seemed to be the quintessential cowboy with his enormous mustache and unapologetic drawl. His advice was always spot on and his folksy ways only made him more endearing to those of us in the audience. Over the years he earned quite a name for himself and the whole city mourned his passing as if he had been a family friend. His memory lives on for those of us who admired him and his work and even schools have been named in his honor.  More than anything Dr. Red Duke was a brilliant physician who dedicated his life to helping the citizens of our city to overcome some of the worst possible injuries.

Red Duke was a graduate of Texas A&M University, and the story of how he became a student at that renowned institution tells a great deal about his character and how things used to be in a long ago time. Red wasn’t school in the ways of academia, but he was a bright fellow and he knew that he wanted a college degree so he found out when the fall classes would commence at A&M and simply showed up one day announcing that he wanted to study science. He had not filled out an application nor even taken any entrance exams because he didn’t realize that there was a formal admission process. Instead He simply visited one of the departments and announced that he was ready to tackle the curriculum. The professor with whom he spoke was so taken with Red that he immediately decided to allow the enterprising young man to register. Of course Dr. Duke proved to be more than qualified for the rigors of the college and went on to become the incredible doctor that we knew and loved.

I often think about this story and others like it whenever I hear of how difficult it has become for students to earn admission to universities. The days of the old college try are mostly gone. Admissions are competitive to the point of overlooking a great deal of talent, and certainly nobody like Red Duke would be taken seriously in today’s environment. It’s sad to think about all of the students who might actually do quite well if given the opportunity to be judged on something other than grades and test scores which are often affected by considerations having little to do with actual capabilities.

We all know those types who get nervous on high stakes standardized tests and rarely do as well as they might. I am one of those who seem to literally lose my mind when faced with a ticking clock and sets of questions that I must attack quickly, and yet my cumulative GPA in college was almost a perfect 4.0. I’m a very hard worker and someone who may take a day or so longer than others to master a concept, but I will do it every time because I am filled with nonstop determination. Such traits don’t always matter much in today’s world where everyone is just one of thousands of electronically submitted applications, essays, and scores. 

There is also the problem of with the subjectivity of grading that varies tremendously from one place to another, one teacher to the next. A very high grade may be easy to achieve in one school but unlikely in another. It’s almost impossible to judge the true worth of grades without closely studying the history of the courses and the types of measures used. It’s well known that some universities, for example grade hard, while others dole out A’s and B’s like water. Being in the top ten percent of a graduating class at Bellaire High School is much more difficult to achieve than doing the same thing at other Houston. Purdue University has a reputation for generally giving students lower marks than they would make with the same level of work at one of the Ivy League schools. Grades are a very subjective and complex measure and yet they mean everything when attempting to gain entrance to the best colleges and universities.

All of this reliance on data rather than the living breathing characteristics of individuals has created a kind of intense game that dedicated high schoolers must play in order to move to the next level. The stressors are unbelievable and today’s students are having to work at a continually fast pace just to stay in the race. In the meantimes classes are becoming ever more rigorous as the required knowledge and skills are advancing to levels that were once the domain of universities. It is little wonder that so many young people are burning out and even becoming ill. It is more and more difficult for them to just be carefree. Instead their lives are dominated by studying and activities from the moment they arise each morning until late into the night, and the pressure just appears to be getting worse, not to even mention the fears of violence that hang over their heads.

There is so much required material to cover that teachers are beginning to rely more and more on videos and supplemental readings for their students. Assignments are often long and complex, taking hours to complete with very short amounts of intervals allotted to do the work. There are projects and extra curricular activities that fight for inclusion on overloaded calendars. All too often parents only find moments to spend time with their children over assignments and as spectators at events. Family togetherness is being stolen to the point of ridiculousness and because of the demands those who rebel and refuse to play the game are unlikely to get acceptance letters from the universities that they most want to attend. Few are given a chance to just prove themselves if their bonafides are not up to speed. Qualifications have to be golden from the start.

I understand that universities are crowded and must somehow draw the line on how many admissions they may grant. Still I wonder how many Red Dukes are being turned away. How much potential is lost?  Why should the actions or lack of them from teenagers be used to determine futures? Surely brilliance and potential cannot possibly be measured in the same way for all people.

I’d love to see a bit more willingness from admissions panels to deviate from formulaic decision making. In using only certain guidelines we are surely missing some unique souls who might be the future change makers of our world. Perhaps it’s time to use a bit more common sense and be open to that individual who shows up with something so beguiling that it’s worth setting aside the formulas to see what he or she might do. We need to consider whether or not we are stealing the happy days from our youth by placing them in the kinds of stressful situations that presently exist. Somehow there must be a better way.

Love Honor Cherish

15975072_10211601975865667_328586816067567646_oParenting is one of the most difficult tasks that we humans attempt to master. It pains us to see our children hurting, but we know that we will never be able to completely eliminate struggles from their lives, so we teach then how to effectively deal with both trials and tribulations. We hope that our foundation will help them when we launch them into the adult world. Mostly we pray that they will know how to surround themselves with good people who love and care about them as they begin their independent journeys without us. So it was with my two girls.

Like any other parent I did my best and hoped with all of my heart that my efforts would be enough. My eldest Maryellen had always made me proud, and she appeared to have a good head on her shoulders as she left our home to become educated by others at the University of Texas in Austin. There were some shaky moments in her early days there when I received phone calls and heard the strains of uncertainty in her voice, but she managed to make it through the rough patches and secured a place for herself among friends both new and old. Along the way she met a young man named Scott through the encouragement of one of her more gregarious friends.

At first Maryellen was tentative about being more than just a good pal to Scott, but before long she was drawn to his good nature and his intellect and they began to date. Her face would light up whenever she spoke of him and I could tell that her relationship with him was far more special than any that she had ever experienced. He had a way of understanding her and treating her as an equal that pleased her. Even his gifts to her at Christmastime were astutely thoughtful and romantic. I found myself believing that she had found the man of her dreams and when I finally met him I was pleased to sense that he was a truly good person who respected and cherished her as much as I did.

Maryellen and Scott enjoyed a delightful courtship at the university, peppered with serious study sessions and fun times with a group of remarkable friends. They cheered the Longhorns at football and basketball games and enjoyed the same music and movies. Mostly they talked and realized how neatly their hopes and dreams meshed with one another. They fell in love.

I was quite pleased when they announced that they were engaged. They were both mature and thoughtful individuals who had transitioned well into adulthood. They both were within striking distance of earning degrees in the respected fields of business and engineering. Their futures were promising and together they were certain to be a power couple, but more importantly they shared values that would help them to build a life of love and devotion.

Twenty five years ago today they exchanged their vows at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. It was a beautiful service shared with a crowd of friends and relatives. Maryellen glowed with the flush of love and anticipation and Scott had “the look” in his eyes that assured me that he would be forever faithful and loving to my daughter. Our family priest John Perusina said the mass and Scott’s Lutheran minister assisted with the proceedings. The bridesmaids wore blue and one of Maryellen’s childhood friends sang Sunrise, Sunset like an angel, making everyone in attendance cry as we recalled how quickly the years had gone by since the bride and groom had been children. It was a gloriously happy day that bode well for the future.

Maryellen and Scott moved to Beaumont after a memorable honeymoon in Yosemite National Park, yet another idea of Scott’s that was so perfectly suited to Maryellen. They set up housekeeping in a cute apartment and began their careers. It was a fun time and it was wonderful to see how happy they were and how well things were going for them.

Eventually Scott received an offer that he couldn’t refuse from a firm in Indiana and so the two of them were on the move. They purchased a lovely house in Lafayette and began to explore the midwest during their free time. They were only two hours away from Chicago and so that exciting city became a frequent destination. It was a time filled with new adventures and new confidence for them when all of us realized that they had indeed become a powerful team.

Four years after they married their first child, Andrew, was born and our visits to Indiana became ever more frequent as we enjoyed visits with our grandchild. I always felt so intensely happy to see the relationship between Maryellen and Scott growing ever stronger and thus it would be as one year flowed into the next and three more children joined the family as they moved again to Beaumont and finally back to the Houston area.

Maryellen and Scott have been models of love and dedication. They are beloved pillars of of their community known for their dedication to being exceptional parents and generous neighbors. They inspire others with their devotion to each other and to their sons. Together they have weathered the rollercoaster ride that is life and managed to overcome every challenge that appeared on their horizon.

In a very troubled world where it almost seems old fashioned to hold tightly to values and traditions Maryellen and Scott Greene have proven that the power of love is still one of the most priceless treasures that any of us might possess. For twenty five years they have steadfastly honored one another and passed on their mutual love to their sons who are growing in the same wisdom and age and grace that they have so beautifully exhibited.

Somehow I am overwhelmed by the rapid passage of time. In my mind they are still the twenty something young adults with so much hope in their eyes and a whole lifetime ahead of them. They have done a remarkable job of cherishing the promise that they made on that day in the glow of tiny lights from the Christmas trees on the altar. They have fulfilled all of their vows and done the hard work of keeping the flame of their never ending love alive. It makes my heart burst with joy to know that they are such incredibly fine people.

Happy Twenty Fifth Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Greene. May you enjoy many more wonderful days together as you share a special love. You are a blessing to all of us.