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In the early 1900’s, a young girl named Emilia Diaz from Ojuelos, Jalisco, fled her homeland after her father was gunned down by an assassin during the Mexican revolution. With tears in her eyes, and a few of her most prized possessions stuffed into a pack, she and her sisters set off for America—the one place they felt could offer them a brighter future. Emilia was tired. She would soon be poor. But as was promised, America lifted her lamp beside the golden door and welcomed Emilia and her sisters with love.
Two generations later, my own reality looks very different from my grandmother’s. As a second-generation American, I walked the stage at high school graduation, college graduation, right into Harvard Square, where I’d earn my Master’s degree from our nation’s finest university. I’ve been part of our democracy as a presidential campaign staffer, then as a local candidate myself. Through all of it, I’ve felt my grandmother by my side. This, I can’t help but think, is exactly what she had in mind.
Of course, our story is neither unique nor universal. America remains both a place where hard-working people can find success and one where too few hard working people do.
When we begin to unpack this complex problem, we confront the realities of our public schools again and again, where low-income students are far less likely to graduate than their more affluent counterparts. It is a systemically perpetuated injustice that is keeping kids and families in oppressive cycles of poverty. In a system where last year, the majority of students qualified as low-income, maintaining the status quo will quickly translate to a majority of kids and families whose opportunities and life prospects are chained.
But when they do get the support they need, they become unstoppable. As a Teach For America corps member in Dallas, I had the privilege of teaching Eduardo, an eighth grade ESL student with learning disabilities. The year before I taught him, Eduardo failed to pass any of his state exams. He took those failures to heart. In one of our first, I starting listing all the things we would do to get him ready to pass the U.S. History state exam. He interrupted me with a laugh. “No way. Never going to happen.”
My first task became clear. I had to reframe the way he thought about himself and his abilities. So I taught him to see his labels as assets. Special education meant he was a hard worker; school didn’t come easy to him but he identified ways to succeed regardless. ESL meant that he had a leg up on others because he would soon be fluent in two languages while many of us can only speak one.
Over the course of the year, Eduardo embraced this challenge and soon volunteered for leadership positions in my class. He made it a goal to not only pass the state exam, but to attain a commended score (the equivalent of missing fewer than seven questions on the test).
After that exam had been scored, I held a ceremony in my class where each student received a handwritten note from me letting them know their grade and how proud I was of them. During Eduardo’s class I held his back until the end of class. After all the students left for lunch, I handed the note to Eduardo. He opened it, stared at the paper, and then looked at me in disbelief. He had passed the 8th grade social studies exam—with commendation. I thought his hug might knock me over.
As a second generation Mexican American born into a family scratching the bottom surface of the middle class in a declining city east of Houston, Texas, I wasn’t supposed to succeed. But with my family’s steadfast support and unyielding belief in the power of education, I have had the chance to chase my professional and personal passions. For me, this means helping the next generation of kids who look like me discover their own.
America has always represented a hope that life can be better. It has taken in those who have been persecuted and just plain beat down elsewhere and given them the opportunity to rewrite their futures. It’s up to our generation to ensure that we deliver on that promise for every single child who grows up with a dream. They are our future. Let’s set them up to achieve it.
Miguel Solis received a Master’s in Education Policy from Harvard in 2012. He is a Teach For America-Dallas-Fort Worth alum and currently serves as the first Vice President of the Dallas Independent School District Board of Trustees. He is the President of the Latino Center for Leadership Development.
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