It’s Not That Bad Here!

On Friday morning’s school announcement, I told my students about something I heard recently, on my drive to school. The NPR Morning Edition story playing on my car radio was about the Syrian civil war. The person being interviewed was talking about his experience in the Syrian town of Douma, which is under siege, and how people there were managing. I told my students I had learned that the children in Douma go to school from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. because at 8, the air strikes begin. I told my kids how lucky they were to have the opportunity to be in a school in the US and have so much available to them. I said that if kids in Douma, in the middle of a civil war, felt school was important enough to attend for even two hours each day, my students here, should also make school a priority.

Having grown up in India where getting an education is seen as a key to having a better life, I am often puzzled when I see students take for granted the opportunities they have for education. I remember my parents saying that it was their job to take care of our family, and it was my brother’s and my job to work hard in school.

Almost every week, I tell students, one-on-one or in groups, that there are children around the world who don’t have access to schools, books and other resources available in American schools. This NPR story about kids going to school in civil-war torn Douma was an important one to share with them. My elementary school is home to Burmese refugee kids, refugees from Iraq and other countries. Their adjustment to being in the US as refugees, is so different from my experience as an immigrant here. I arrived here and walked into grad. school, speaking, reading and writing English quite proficiently. Our refugee students and their parents don’t speak English and we may not have someone at school who speaks their language. Schools here are very different from what they have experienced even if they had the chance of attending school before coming here. Being away from their parents for seven hours of the day is a separation that sometimes creates anxiety. It is heartening to see them gradually adjust to a new life and new experiences. I love seeing the other students welcome and support them when they first enroll with us.

On Friday, at the end of the day, an ENL (English as a New Language) teacher sent me an email about the reflections of a young student from Iraq.

“Mrs. Balagopal made me feel bad today when she was talking about Syria.  She said some kids wanted to go to school and couldn’t.  I didn’t want to go to school until I heard what she said today.  

I have been to Syria when I was two and it made me feel bad that they wanted to go to school like I can and I didn’t want to go to school at all.  I have decided that I should be glad I can go to school.  It’s not that bad here.”

I guess the stories we share can have an impact beyond our initial intentions. Connecting our kids to what is happening in the world makes them more knowledgeable and aware, it helps to grow empathy, and perhaps, it can also motivate them to make something more of their lives. My kids have heard about Ruby Bridges and the students at the Woolworth’s lunch counter during the Nashville sit-in, along with other stories of changemakers. In my urban school, many children come from families where their parents may not have finished high school, much less attended college. But that should not stop them from dreaming big, and seeing education as a ticket to a different life.

The big story that the media and politicians miss is that in urban schools, educators work hard to motivate kids and reach them, sometimes one at a time, for much more than reading, math and science. As I tell my teachers, the results of our work may not be seen today or tomorrow, but several years from now. If we are fortunate, our students will come back and tell us what they have become. Inspiring them today is a big task, with no set formula. But it’s a challenge that brings us back into our schools day after day, regardless of how tough the circumstances might be, because every kid is worth it!

Sharing a snippet from one news story told me how much of an influence we can have, when we least expect it.

Lessons Learned From the Melting Pot

Last week, after over two decades of living, working and paying taxes in the United States on Student Visas, with Work Permits and then Green Cards (Permanent Resident cards which are actually pink), my husband and I became citizens. It was an interesting experience and one that made some simple things stand out in importance. If you’re wondering what ‘thoughts about learning and growing’ emerged from this event, do read on!

We sent our application for citizenship in January and in subsequent months went through biometric scanning (digital fingerprinting), a test of our knowledge of US history, civics and geography, a simple reading and writing test, and an interview. The Homeland Security officer interviewing me said that I was her ‘first principal’! Apparently she had interviewed other educators applying for citizenship but none in my professional role. She was pleasant and friendly as were the others who took us through all the steps of the process. In April we would have our swearing-in ceremony – and I pictured a formal bureaucratic ceremony that would unfold in a courthouse in Indianapolis.

One morning in April, during our morning ‘Bulldog Broadcast’ (our closed-circuit TV message) I told my students that I was going to become a citizen of the US. I said I was looking forward to sharing information about all the things I had to do to earn this privilege and as I spoke that day, the upcoming event seemed more real. And then, last Thursday, while my husband and I sat at the courthouse with 69 others who would be changing their status from ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ to ‘Citizen’, the monthly convocation unfolded at my school. Our wonderful art teacher announced to the 800 plus kids and grown-ups gathered in our gymnasium and cafeteria that in a few minutes, as they said the Pledge of Allegiance, with which we begin our school ceremonies, in another corner of Indianapolis, their principal would be taking an oath of citizenship and then saying the same Pledge.

I made it back to school late that morning and entered through a side door, carrying my books, bags and a little US flag. The first child I saw called out, “Welcome to America!” She was followed by several others throughout the day, and still more during dismissal wishing me the same in a chorus, sporting big smiles, as they filed out of school heading for their buses and cars. They seemed to have given it the kind of status reserved for special days like birthdays! I think I was grinning non-stop that day. It was delightful and I was receiving an incredible welcome! And today, several days later, the greetings are still coming my way. “Welcome to America, Ms. Balagopal!” “Welcome to your new home!” “We hope you like it here!” As I put it, even if I waited 23 years to be welcomed to the US, it was worth it! And all the good wishes from the grown-ups too – friends and family – have turned a simple change of status into a time when one realizes how much others care.

The event has played in my mind a lot of times since last week. What I had assumed would be a solemn, formal event had been anything but that. Yes, we did put our purses, belts and folders through a metal detector at the courthouse, and of course, my ear-rings set off some bells as I walked through the scanner! But the security staff were pleasant and cheerful as they directed us to the courtroom assigned for the function. We stood in a long hallway for a while as another security person walked from one person to another greeting us cheerfully, checking our paperwork and inviting guests to enter the courtroom without having to wait in the line. She was kidding around with people and answering all our questions. In a cheery voice, she even let us know that we would be able to step out for a few minutes before the ceremony started to ‘feed’ the parking meters!

The courtroom was large, and beautifully elegant, and everything started on time. After the formalities that took place as the judge entered, the rest of the ceremony was touching, sometimes a little emotional and often delightful. As they called out the names of the 71 new citizens-to-be, each of us stood up and named our country of origin. I was amazed that in a corner of the mid-west that is not usually known for its diversity, the courtroom now housed people from an incredible array of countries. My husband quickly wrote down most of the names of the countries on the back of an envelope holding our citizenship packet. You can see them in the Wordle image at the top of this post – the larger names represent multiple people from the same country. We did miss a few countries we couldn’t hear clearly enough, but, this was a memorable and touching part of a ceremony that accorded tremendous respect to the backgrounds of the people in the room.

The judge presiding over the ceremony was delightful. He regaled us with his sense of humor and anecdotes. As he spoke of valuing diversity in this land of immigrants, his invitational and welcoming tone was very apparent. He quipped that every time Andrew Luck made a touchdown in the future, we should remember that we became citizens on the day that the Indianapolis Colts had drafted him! The swearing-in ceremony was moving. There was a feeling of leaving one thing for another – both things one loves – not unlike the notion in the Indian context, of a bride leaving her family to begin a new life. At that moment I remembered what my brother-in-law had said to my parents at my wedding. He had asked them to look at it as not about ‘losing their daughter’ but ‘gaining a son’. While I feel privileged to now be a citizen in a place I’ve called my home for half of my life, I know my love for the land where I was born will still be a part of me. As my assistant principal later said, “We’ve adopted you, Subha!”

Representatives of the two senators and a local congressman gave brief speeches to welcome us to our new roles and encouraged us to actively participate and exercise our duties and responsibilities. The Daughters of the American Revolution gave us small flags, and we left the courtroom with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as well as our new citizenship certificate, passport forms, and other documents we needed. Right outside were people waiting to give us the opportunity to complete voter registration paperwork. It was all very thoughtfully organized and a lot was accomplished in a short amount of time.

As I shared this experience with friends and family, one friend wrote back and said: “At my swearing-in, the judge said… ‘Even if the lady next door isn’t as welcoming as the Statue of Liberty, this process is built on welcoming each of you to your new home country. As this becomes your new country, remember your old home country with love, and remember to make this new home a better place. My grandfather came here as a construction worker, and here I am a federal judge. This is what this country is about.’ I was pretty psyched. I hope your swearing-in was special too.”

I read her words and knew that this blog post would ensue! I was impressed with the emphasis given to the simple notion of being welcoming and invitational during this process. Hearing about my friend’s experience from a different corner of the US led me to believe that perhaps this was not just about the mid-western, Indiana hospitality I love. It seemed like a welcoming tone was being set deliberately. I would not have been disappointed or surprised had I attended a formal, bare-bones ceremony, but the sweet, sometimes funny event I had experienced made me feel like this was about more than a ‘change of status’. As I think back, this tone was present even when I was being fingerprinted and interviewed! The respect given to where each of us came from was especially touching and gives me hope that the diversity of the people in this land we call a ‘melting pot’ will always be celebrated.

In our schools, and indeed, in any organization, each one of us has the power to make the simplest moments special and engaging. We have the power to be invitational and welcoming. Yes, we can be formal and serious and make things seem weighty and important, or cloud interactions with grumpy and brusque undertones and even sarcasm or irritation. But, where’s the joy in that? Who wants to work in a formal, serious, grumpy, weighty place? It would be so much more fun to step into the sunshine and warmth of a happy and caring organization, where people build relationships with colleagues and customers (our families and community). And the formula is not complex – the ingredients are simple: lots of smiles and good cheer, thoughtfulness in the smallest of actions focused on making things easy and less complicated for others, a willingness to make simple things more special, and a good dose of care, humor and joy. Whether it’s a teacher in a classroom seeking to engage students, office staff addressing the questions and needs of visitors, or school leaders serving a diverse group of stakeholders, each one of us has the power to make the little moments count. We often spend a lot of time and energy on the BIG things we need to accomplish that take hours of our attention, forgetting sometimes that it is in the small moments that we truly forge the relationships that strengthen and sustain our organizations.

I’ve always believed in the importance of the tone we set. If people sitting in governmental agencies, charged with poring over pages of documents to approve requests for citizenship can make the process unfold in such a thoughtful and special way, I do believe it shouldn’t be tough for us to do the same consistently in our schools (or any other organization). Our kids deserve nothing less!