Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately. –Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize recipient
When I was in college, I met a resilient man. He was tiny, bone thin and determined to learn English. He had survived the killing fields of Cambodia and been one of the few allowed to emigrate to the United States. He was alone. All of his family and friends had perished in the genocide that took an estimated 30% of the Cambodian people in the years leading up to 1980 (the year of my high school graduation.) He had endured constant terror, starvation, and depravity. He had hauled himself through the jungle, narrowly evading peril many times as he pursued freedom and safety away from a country that was systematically eliminating its population, anyone who might challenge the power of the Khmer Rouge.
It was my privilege to teach him as one of Utah State University’s Writing Laboratory staff members. Writing about his experiences was cathartic for him. Otherwise, I might never have known about his experiences and suffering. He was my most motivated student. He pushed himself to learn in a way I haven’t seen since.
I’m afraid the world is forgetting about people who flee fear.
Regardless of background, many of our students lack motivation and perspective. It seems to me we have reached a tipping point of apathetic disconnect that will have a terrible impact on our future unless educators actively pursue the role they have been entrusted- to prepare students, not only for college and career, but also for a joyful life and their participation in creating a peaceful, humane society.
Many of our students live in a climate of fear that is challenging their ability to learn effectively. Schools are not the only answer, but they are probably the most effective agent for change in a child’s life outside of families. Schools can’t fix every problem, but because of our democratic system of free education, it is the place where society has the opportunity to extend support to every child and by extension, when possible, every child’s family.
Imagine you are someone who is desperate. The situation at home is dangerous and all around you are hungry and desperate people. You are penniless. Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you turn to for help?
The world is seeing an unprecedented number of refugees. Many of these people are fleeing terror, danger and oppression. All of these people are desperately poor. The sheer number is intimidating. Nations all over the world fear the newcomers will negatively affect their quality of life.
Nevertheless, it enriches us to help them.
We are enriched when we are willing to help those who are in desperate circumstances, even when it reduces our own comfort and ease.
Thomas Jefferson said, “I believe that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.” He also wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As a United States history teacher I want my students to embrace that ideal. During multiple historical eras, as now, many people saw these rights as exclusive to certain individuals. For society’s sake, we must not continue to make the mistake of thinking that our own happiness depends on ignoring the rights and needs of others.
On the small stage it is denying our best efforts to that difficult child in our classes. On the large stage it is keeping desperate and troubled others out of our schools, our communities, or our country.
The common good of our world depends on keeping our collective humanity. It also depends on educators keeping their individual humanity.
The level of fear mongering, the demonizing of individuals and the amount of hate-filled propaganda that is being disseminated from even the highest levels must not be allowed to infect and break our commitment to doing good for those who need us most. This kind of selfish rhetoric, at the least, caused people to ignore the rise of despotism, and at its worst, fueled the killing fields of Cambodia and the extermination camps of the Holocaust.
“Every man for himself” is a philosophy destined to bring isolation, enmity and disconnection.
We may not be able to save every broken person who enters our classrooms, or receive every needy individual into our homes and our communities, but our willingness and our efforts toward that end mark us as good people. We need to be good. For our own sakes as much as for others’.
My Cambodian friend was given a chance. He took that opportunity and made the most of it. Every day I see children of immigrant parents who are encouraged and strengthened to make the most of their educational opportunities. They understand how fortunate they are. They are my most motivated students. They will make a difference someday in the lives and careers they pursue and the connections they make.
America is great. We can point to many instances of greatness, but let’s be better than great. Let’s be good.