It is my Dad’s birthday today and so in his honor, I am posting an edited version of last year’s tribute to him.
My Dad’s choice of vocation as a bilingual teacher fundamentally shaped the way I look at the world. His countless presentations to school boards on language learning and the value of bilingual versus ESL-type programs shaped my thinking about social justice and education. He and Mom did highly influential work together to defend and protect educational opportunities for children of (originally) migrant workers in our small town.
Dad was called to serve these children and their parents, who needed a strong advocate for their education. He worked with them to help ensure they could get the best education possible. He believed in their potential and was ready to nurture it every step of the way, building a strong base of skills and also self-confidence. His work as an elementary level teacher touched so many young children’s lives in a powerful and profound way.
We used to go to the classroom late at night, my Mom and Dad and my sister, to put up bulletin boards at the beginning of each new month. My sister also remembers how “cool” it was for Dad to have a key to the school, and he and Mom could work there after hours, when it was easier to get work done uninterrupted. Having special access to the school meant that we could run down the hallways while nobody was there! So much fun. We could never get away with that during a school day.
I remember Dad teaching me to read by the time I was 4 years old. That made my kindergarten experience boring, since I was amazed we had to go back through all the letter books. Really?!? Can nobody else read yet? I got to skip my reading classes in favor of going to the bilingual classroom several hours a day. This saved me from the torture of repeating what I had already mastered.
Dad nurtured that spark of learning within me, and that has been a constant throughout my life. I learn quickly, and greedily, reading books as fast as I can. Of course, having a bit of challenge with attention, I sometimes read a book twice in order to fully absorb it.
Both Mom and Dad believed in reading to us when we were young, and this may be one reason I still love to read. I also enjoy audio books because it is a sweet memory to have someone read to me. For sure, my Grandmother had great influence as well. She was an avid reader and consummate learner.
Dad was amazingly patient with classrooms full of children. They behaved well for him. He almost never sick days but when he did, the substitutes were always amazed by his class. He created partnerships with parents and got to know them well throughout the year.
Hispanic parents typically do not tolerate misbehavior by their children in school. One call from “el Maestro” was enough to get a student to realize they could not misbehave in his classroom without having consequences happen at home. Their culture still has high respect for teachers. Sometimes Dad brought in psychologists as guest speakers to talk with the parents about how to help their kids at home, and was devoted to helping those young minds open and bloom.
Dad faced racism in his experience as an educated Mexican living in a small town, a very “white” town. The parents of his students respected him a great deal, but some of the teachers he worked with did not. Indeed some of the administrators did not, but he did have good principals. One particular school superintendent took special interest in his classes. This leader, noticing how respectful and well-behaved my Dad’s classes were, made sure that the direction from the top was to expand the bilingual program, not to cut back, as some school boards had tried to do.
One of the greatest lessons I learned from my Dad (and Mom taught me this as well) was that you should treat everyone with respect. A person’s “station” in life does not matter. Whether they are a teacher, a principal, a janitor or a cook, you must treat each person with dignity and respect. This is fundamental to the way I interact with the world, and is something I strive to emulate as well.
I am truly grateful to my Dad, and for all the lessons I learned through the way he and my mother live their lives. Teaching is a vocation, not just a job. I like to say I come from a family of teachers, and it is true, multiple generations. I am immensely proud of that.
Happy birthday, Dad!