Proud to be a part of the public education system in America

Following graduation from MacArthur High School in Levittown, N.Y., I accepted an athletic scholarship to Doane College in Crete. (Actually, my father accepted to get me out of New York post-Vietnam.) It was an interesting venture, as my family had never been west of New Jersey. It was an incredibly long drive, with nary a skyscraper or taxicab to be seen after we crossed the George Washington Bridge. I had no idea what life would be like 1,400 miles from home and the pizza joint down my block.

My worst fears were soon realized when my parents dropped me off at midnight with a couple bucks and a pat on the back. (My mom did cry if anyone is wondering, but dad was a New York cop.) The next day a couple more guys from New Jersey arrived under similar circumstances and we immediately bonded over how soon we could get back to civilization.

The coaches talked frequently to us about the opportunity we had in front of us. I felt like a fish out of water and struggled understanding why everyone was so friendly. My worst day came during freshman orientation, in which we had to demonstrate our academic and social skills. I found the experience to be easy, as I took all the college prep classes at MacArthur. Imagine my surprise when I was placed into a remedial speech seminar because, as they explained to me, my enunciation and pronunciation of words and phrases were not articulated clearly. Apparently saying “wata,” “dolla” and “quata” (water, dollar and quarter) had too much accent and the course or seminar would help with that. I was determined to leave even sooner than the end of the semester. Fortunately, I didn’t.

My experience is mild compared to what our immigrant families face when they arrive in Lincoln. Recently I visited Everett Elementary School and had an opportunity to speak with a number of immigrant moms from five different countries who had enrolled in the Family Literacy Program. Their motivation to be there was simply to learn to speak English so they could help their children with homework. We can’t possibly imagine the challenges they face on a daily basis to navigate our systems but they are undaunted, as they see great reward in learning alongside their children.

Many of these parents have faced unconscionable peril during their lives with little access to high-quality education. For them to be able to assemble with others experiencing similar circumstances and with teachers who care deeply for their success makes me proud to be part of the greatest enterprise in America – public education.

Oh, and now when I visit family in New York, they make fun of my Nebraska accent. Go figure.

Steve Joel