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Why I'll Never Give Up on Any Child

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My Father's Journey from Class Clown to Educator

My father pounded three things into my brain from the time I can remember:

  1. Never rely on a man for your financial survival
  2. Education is something no one can ever steal from you
  3. Outdoor toilet seats in January are cold.

These three statements represent tenets of an interwoven philosophy derived from poverty, feminism, and hope.

My father’s people were “Arkies” who came to the Pacific Northwest as refugees of sorts—they traveled from Arkansas after the Great Depression, forced into migration by the greed that bankrupted Wall Street, financial institutions, and the farms my grandfather worked. Grandpa was a hired hand. He and Grandma found their way north, settling the family into a shack in an orchard outside Wenatchee, Washington, the “Apple Capital of the World.” Grandpa left shortly thereafter, abandoning his tea-totaling wife and five children for the promise of women and wine. 

Grandma found work as a domestic servant, for “rich folks” as she called them, at 50 cents an hour. Don’t feel sorry for her. She would be the first to tell you that.

Never rely on a man for your financial survival.

The only boy in a house full of females, my father ran wild. He pranked the “rich folks,” lit a hill on fire and blamed it on the Boy Scouts, and was, by all accounts, heading nowhere. My father eventually graduated high school, even though he’d earned the nickname “J.D.”—Juvenile Delinquent—in the process due to a short-lived career in Grand Theft Auto (Grandma turned him in). No teacher ever encouraged him. No parents were around to pay attention. Heck, no one expected him to amount to much. The saddest part was: he believed it himself. Dad almost failed to graduate, but he managed to scrape by, 273rd in a class of just over 300, with a D grade point average.

Like many poor boys before him, my father viewed the Air Force as somewhere to get three squares, a place to sleep, and perhaps a little adventure. Vietnam was raging, but he managed to find a safe place inside the guts of airplanes. Being short of stature, he could crawl into tight spaces and fix them. Truth be told, my father wasn’t a great Airman. Too sarcastic to follow orders. He never could get over his compulsion to prank authority. Private Second Class he was given, and Private Second Class he left.

Shortly after his discharge, he met my Mom. He was working at Boeing, still crawling into tight spaces to fix planes, and he wasn’t happy. Mom reminded him that he had the G.I. Bill, where he could go to college and do something else, something he loved. But you see, my Dad had always been told he was stupid. Maybe he reminded Grandma of her philandering husband. Maybe he was just too creative with his jokes to be taken seriously. Maybe the school system didn’t have time for a poor boy who lacked respect, one who had little supervision because his Mom was working too hard. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe he was college material.

But my Mom did.

My father loved painting—a true artist who saw the world through slightly different, if skewed, lenses. In college, he excelled. Finally, he had stumbled on a place that encouraged students to question everything.

After four hard years of work, he became a junior high school art and English teacher—one with a particular ability to relate to and reach the “class clown.” A brilliant teacher now retired, my father still occasionally runs into his students from decades ago who tell him he changed their lives.

Education is something no one can ever steal from you.

I am telling you this because he is my hero. My father, still married to my mother—the woman who believed in him so many years ago—spent his life setting an example of what you can accomplish regardless of where you start. Whether your beginning is in a middle-class home like he gave us or a shack in an apple orchard with no indoor bathroom like he had. His story compels me to pay attention to all children and never discount their potential. You can never know what a child is experiencing at home, or how much that kid is struggling. 

"Work hard," my father would tell us when we balked at doing homework. "Education is something that no one can ever steal from you. Don’t let anyone make you believe you are dumb. Remember where we come from." And then, with a sly smirk, he would say, "Let me tell you, girls, you have it easy. Outdoor toilet seats in January are cold."

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