As I looked around the small auditorium, I saw students, parents, teachers, administrators and school board members all rise to give a standing ovation to a Union County high school senior.
The ovation came not because she was a champion athlete or had been accepted to an Ivy League university, but because her story was one of such courage and determination that we were amazed and inspired. This student exemplified the American Dream and showed us all the importance of public education. She was being honored at the Union County School Boards Association’s annual “Unsung Heroes” program, which recognizes students who have overcome obstacles and challenges.
Her story of overcoming challenges was powerful. Born in a gang-infested area of El Salvador, she feared danger just walking down the street. Gang members would try to prey on her. One day, she was raped and became pregnant; she gave birth as a teenager. Her mother decided that it was too dangerous and she could not protect her daughter (or grandchild) from further violence, so they began a long trip — much of it walking — to the United States so she could live with her grandmother.
Her mother was not permitted to enter the U.S., but the girl and her baby were, joining her grandmother to live in Union County. She spoke no English but learned quickly, worked hard and received top grades. At the time of the Unsung Heroes program, she was not only a student, but a mother and about to be a high school graduate, working hard so that both she and her own daughter can have a better life. “This girl inspires me,” said the guidance counselor who spoke at the meeting. When her story was recounted by the guidance counselor, many of those in the room — including me — could not imagine persevering through those challenges.
NJSBA’s county school boards association meetings normally feature discussion on such topics as school safety, standardized testing or the latest education-related legislation. But 14 county associations hold an annual student-centered program, typically in the spring. Currently there are two such types of sessions — the Unsung Heroes and the Eighth-Grade Dialogue. For many board members — and for me — they are some of the highlights of the year.
Unsung Heroes honors students who have triumphed over obstacles to succeed academically and positively contributed to school life. Each high school in the county is invited to name a student, who with his or her parents, are guests at a county school boards association meeting where the student is honored. A school staff member talks about why this child is an “Unsung Hero.”
Over the years, I have heard many uplifting stories at the Unsung Heroes programs — a student who took care of a sick parent at night while still attending school every day; one who suffered the death of a parent and took care of younger siblings while still maintaining good grades; another who overcame health problems but still brightened everyone’s day at school; and several others who immigrated knowing no English, and who not only learned the language, but also became honor students.
A common thread is that these students did not gradually ease into adulthood, but rather were thrown into a situation with adult responsibilities and challenges which matured them beyond their years. Another theme that surfaces in their stories: Students can inspire the adults in their schools, as much as the adults inspire them.
Another student-centered program, the Eighth-Grade Dialogue, invites all the schools in the county to nominate a student to come to the meeting to discuss educational issues as part of a moderated panel discussion. Topics range from a glimpse into our students’ experiences and lives, to what they think of their education system and how it could be improved.
Each year I am struck by the intelligence, poise and eloquence of these eighth-graders. I have seen building administrators taking notes on the mature insights the students were sharing. Perhaps these Eighth-Grade Dialogues have even inspired some educators to modify some of their school procedures.
I am embarrassed to admit that when I first attended these student-oriented programs, I thought they were more ceremonial than training-oriented. But every year, I find myself discussing what the students said in Eighth-Grade Dialogues as I would with any training program; and being touched to the core by the Unsung Heroes programs.
These student-centered programs serve another purpose, which is to debunk the idea that, somehow, today’s students are overly pampered and have it much easier than their parents and grandparents did. One existing narrative is that today’s youth are a “me” generation, with poor work ethics and questionable communication skills due to the time spent interacting through technology, rather than face-to-face.
But if you attend a student-centered program, you’ll see a generation that is intelligent, thoughtful and kind. Seeing kids who have overcome obstacles that most adults couldn’t will leave you inspired and hopeful for the future. They exemplify courage and resiliency and inspire others with their actions.
If your county holds such programs, I strongly urge you to attend. In the end, you will feel proud of New Jersey’s public education system, and proud of the role that school board members play in that system. You’ll also feel optimistic about our nation’s future.