As a child of immigrant parents, neither of whom graduated from high school, I have often wondered how it was possible that all six of their children graduated from college and earned advanced degrees from some of the best colleges in the country — Harvard, Brown, UC Berkeley, Cornell, Columbia, etc.
It certainly wasn’t the public schools we attended. Most of the kids I went to school with in Brentwood, NY, a working class suburb in central Long Island, didn’t go to college at all. Those who did go on to higher education went either to a SUNY school — Albany, Buffalo, New Paltz — or to the local community college. The majority of my peers, however, were thrilled to find a good-paying union job at one of the psychiatric hospitals in the area or at the Entenmann’s factory for which our town was known.
My siblings and I were the exceptions in a variety of ways. While my friends ate typical American food — McDonalds, meat ‘n potatoes, white Wonder bread — we ate the Caribbean food of our parents’ upbringing: rice and beans, curried chicken and goat, and only whole wheat bread (which, to my embarrassment, was used to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches our mother packed for us in un-cool brown paper bags).
Religiously and socially, we stood out as well. My mother was a Jehovah’s Witness (JW), which meant that we went to church (or the Kingdom Hall, as it’s called) often — three times a week or more. There were lots of things we JW kids weren’t supposed to do, like go to parties, have girlfriends or boyfriends, dance, or play sports. Even going to college was discouraged in favor of dedicating one’s life to the ministry. We were expected to preach God’s word door to door, and at an early age, to deliver sermons before the congregation.
Fortunately, my father, an atheist, believed in the importance of education and because of his influence, not going to college wasn’t an option we took seriously. Though he was out of the house much of the time because he worked two jobs as a full-time New York City policeman and part-time taxi cab driver, the fact that we had a father at home was another thing that set us apart from most of our peers. Our father was the disciplinarian we feared far more than our mother (who certainly was no slouch at meting out punishments herself), but he was also the one who took us away on trips. My father made sure that what little vacation time he had was spent exposing us to the wider world.
As a family, we piled into the station wagon and traveled to Canada, Mexico, and even to Central America, with my father doing all of the driving for hundreds of miles. During the winter, he made it a point to take at least two of us along when he and our mother visited family and friends in Jamaica or Trinidad. As a former merchant seaman who had circumnavigated the globe more than once in his youth (he reluctantly took a land job only after his fourth child was born), my father showed us how travel could provide powerful learning experiences. He also told us that we could get a free education with a library card, which is what he himself had done. He often repeated the saying that common sense is really not that common and, in his opinion, was far more important than what we might learn in school.
My learning story is this: my parents were by far my most important teachers. They taught me the value of hard work, of honesty and of discipline. They taught me that it is more important to be responsible than to seek honor or recognition. They never understood the workings of college, so they never pressured us about where to apply or what to study. In fact, they could help us very little as we navigated school and undertook the complex process of applying to college (the older siblings did that for the younger ones). They taught us something that I now know is missing from the lives of far too many children, rich and poor, a lesson that has nothing to do with race or privilege, status or education: they taught us how to live as adults, how to take care of ourselves and each other, how to be parents and how to be happy.
This is why I consistently remind educators never to take parents for granted. Parents can and often do make the difference for children. When parents are treated with dignity and respect by those who educate their children they can be partners who can make the job of educating children much easier and more successful.