A long-term strategy for a short-term crisis

I was fascinated by President Barack Obama’s speech last Tuesday at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He proposes education, a long-term investment, as an integral part of the solution to our current economic crisis.

In it, he lays out a call to action for education reform in this country. More importantly, he urges young Americans to remember the historical roots of our nation’s path of greatness, and he ties economic progress with educational investment.

The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people.

This brought back memories of many a dinner-table or car-ride conversation with my parents, who are both immigrants from Taiwan. They arrived here in the 1960s, fresh out of National Taiwan University’s College of Pharmacy, having been admitted to PhD programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. My father studied pharmacology, my mother the more esoteric field of pharmacognosy (medicinal botany).

I grew up hearing stories of another culture, and hearing the values handed to them from their life experiences and their parents. They lived the story of the importance of education. They uprooted themselves from a culture at the age of 22, never to return again, for the sake of a higher education and better opportunities for their children.

And yet, at their core, they were dreamers. They had no guarantees that their vision of life in America would become their reality. I learned later that many of their youthful visions were formed from the American movies they had seen – John Wayne, James Dean, and the like – or the stories of others who had taken the chance of emigration before them.

Yet, despite being great risk-takers in their 20s, they held a long-term view of what was important in life. Family. Education. The rest? Well, that could be taken care of when the time came.

So while my parents both ended up doing well for themselves – despite those graduate student and post-doc years of hardship, they eventually moved to a four-bedroom house in the suburbs of Chicago, where they had heard that the public schools were highly rated – the entire focus of their adult productive lives was the investment into their children’s educations. My brother and I were both valedictorians of Libertyville High School, and both of us went on to finish medical school. (And, my brother is actually a practicing physician!)

All throughout our lives, we heard the mantra of our family’s priorities – health first, then education, then commitment to extracurriculars (which primarily involved music for me until high school, when I began to devote more time to school extracurriculars as well). Just this simple prioritization scheme made everything clear. It was not a daily negotiation. It was accepted as the rules of our lives for those years. We grew up seeing both of our parents get up each morning and go to work. My mother would pick me up from school, return home and cook dinner for the family every day. While she cooked, I practiced piano or did homework. (I waited for my Dad to get home to practice violin.) The four of us would eat together each night, as this was something my mother was extremely committed to. We would wait until my father arrived, and we would sit down at the table together. That was our time of sharing. We talked about our days, we talked about the food, but mostly we were just together. It was a daily gathering ritual that has sadly vanished from so many American homes in the past two decades.

Sure, we all had our own agendas and life was extremely busy for all of us. But we gathered and rallied as a family around those priorities. My mother took a part-time hospital pharmacist job for which she was overeducated and overqualified and worked at it for twenty years, in order to be home at 3PM. Health as a priority meant getting enough sleep. Under no circumstances – including failure to finish a homework assignment – was I allowed to stay up past a certain time (which changed as I grew older – for instance, in high school it was 10PM). Sleep was considered food for the brain.

Food was considered food as well. We ate home-cooked meals most nights of each week, although we also resorted to convenience foods on the days when there was no other option. More than anything else, though, food was the symbol of family. I often think about the roots of this symbolism, and realize that my longing for certain foods is actually  for the emotional experience associated with that food, more than for the taste. The nostalgia. The meaning of certain foods was tied to celebrations and gatherings that would occur only once or twice a year. Certain smells signified the arrival of something truly special and highly anticipated. Braised pork shoulder (which we called “big brown meat”) comes to mind.

So what does all of this have to do with President Obama’s plan for a new mindset of education in America? I am impressed by his call for investment in pre-kindergarten programs, indicating his recognition that these years form the foundation of all learning that comes afterwards. I’m also impressed at his courage to recommend merit-based compensation for high-performance teachers. Bill Gates said this in the annual letter of the Gates Foundation:

Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.

And let’s acknowledge that parents are their children’s first and most important teachers.

I wouldn’t describe myself as “interested in politics”, so I’m a little amused that I’ve ended up quoting both Barack Obama and Bill Gates in this article. But when it comes to the pressing issues of how we value education in this country, I get passionate. I feel the urgency. I see where we have allowed our collective thinking to drift, and I listen to the noise of our world, and it inspires me to journey back in my mind, to the days that shaped me. I journey back to the home that was created within me – the only gift my parents knew they could give me. All of the accumulation of wealth that occurred in their life was for one purpose, providing the only sure footing they knew would endure the long haul: educating their children.

I admit, there was a time when I looked at their self-sacrifice with a hint of disdain. Why did they deny themselves vacations? Why did they live so frugally? Why didn’t they go shopping for themselves more often? Why didn’t we eat out like so many other families?

I vowed that I would live “out loud” and luxuriously, to prove that I could enjoy life to the fullest, and show them the fulfillment of their American dream. And for a period of years, I enjoyed those indulgences. I still live a life with more freedoms of opportunity than my parents ever had, and for that I know they are proud. But right now, I am beholding the wisdom of all that I have witnessed in my life, and feeling grateful for the lessons they did their best to teach me. I am redefining a richness of life that comes from contributing meaningfully, living abundantly, and creating a unique message that honors the past and looks with hope toward the brightness of our future.

And I’m trying to pass it on.

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