One Shabbat, when our five older children ranged in age from five to ten, we had the privilege of hosting a prominent business leader for Friday night dinner. As table conversation extended the meal, our children asked to be excused and promptly curled up or splayed out on living room couches with lots of reading material.
Our guest, who had long-ago emigrated from Jamaica to the States, looked wistfully at the children, each one engrossed in a book. He recalled how he grew up in intense poverty in a shack without electricity on the hills above Kingston. Every night, his mother made the rounds of bars and lounges collecting stubs of candles. When her supply of candles was low she would take a jar and collect fireflies. All this effort, after a back breaking day of work, was that so he could study, become educated and aim for a better life than she had.
Her efforts paid off magnificently. Her faith in him and in education stayed at his side as he came to America, dedicated himself to his studies and then to diligent work. But his wistful expression while looking at our children wasn’t due to nostalgia or any tinge of resentment that our children’s path was so easy compared to his. He commented, in an incredibly sad and slightly angry tone, how heartsick it made him to see children in his community who had access to free libraries and schooling, wastefully scorn those opportunities. I still remember his exact words—“Your people’s children read books while ours snap their fingers to obscene lyrics.”
This story came to mind as I read about the vast sums of money the “stimulus plan” will allocate to education. In the years that have passed since that night, the fascination with obscene lyrics has spread to all communities, and the feeling that education is a legal right rather than an incredible privilege has spread as well. I certainly wouldn’t suggest spending taxpayer money for firefly collection. But if we could manage to convey, to both parents and teachers, some of this gentleman’s mother’s passion for education, a reverence she shared with Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother and thousands of other poverty stricken and immigrant parents, we would be further along the path to producing successful future generations than any amount of technology or infrastructure improvement could possibly grant us.