OPINION

Opinion: A legacy to guide (What my father taught me about tolerance)

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17:  Siobhan Benita (L), an independent candidate running for the post of Mayor of London, unveils her manifesto proposals with students at the BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College on April 17, 2012 in London, England. Ms Benita is the only independent challenger in the London mayoral race and many bookmakers are offering odds which place her third, behind Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, on her becoming the next Mayor. Siobhan prides herself on not being aligned to any political party and has had no direct political experience, however she recently resigned her senior civil servant job to contest the Mayoral election that take place on May 3, 2012.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: Siobhan Benita (L), an independent candidate running for the post of Mayor of London, unveils her manifesto proposals with students at the BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College on April 17, 2012 in London, England. Ms Benita is the only independent challenger in the London mayoral race and many bookmakers are offering odds which place her third, behind Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, on her becoming the next Mayor. Siobhan prides herself on not being aligned to any political party and has had no direct political experience, however she recently resigned her senior civil servant job to contest the Mayoral election that take place on May 3, 2012. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

I did not start out in college planning to be a teacher, having first majored in Spanish and German and then music. I aspired to do something impressive like interpret at the United Nations or become a concert pianist. When the piano practice room became too isolated and lonely, I entered a “new” program at the University of Texas called bilingual education. 

Forty years later I am still working in the field of bilingual/ESL education.

My love affair with the Spanish language began when I was 10 years old and at the suggestion of my father, went to school in Fort Worth early each morning to take Spanish classes. My dad worked in the banking industry and was very impressed with international bankers who visited from European countries and were fluent in several languages.

Learn a new language, care about others, be interested beyond your own small world. His advice today would be the same. In light of the most recent world events from the Paris terror attacks to calls to ban Syrian refugees in the U.S., his simple words sound like good advice for difficult times.

- Melinda Cowart

A veteran of WWII, my father volunteered to serve in the Army Air Corps. Unable to fight overseas due to a debilitating eye injury in early childhood, he became a flight trainer for the duration of the war. When I ponder my choice of profession, professor of bilingual/ESL teacher education, I must acknowledge my dad’s influence.

He spoke a bit of Spanish and encouraged all four of his children to learn another language. I felt his encouragement to me for learning Spanish as though I was the only one. Occasionally, he would speak basic Spanish with me “Buenos dias.” “Como estas?” and continued to do so even during my contentious teen years.

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It is significant that his final note to me before he died was in Spanish. I had already completed my undergraduate degree in bilingual education and had begun my first year of teaching in a bilingual classroom at a school in West Dallas. Having gone home for an early fall weekend in Fort Worth, he commented that he couldn’t remember a year when the wildflowers had been prettier. 

When we went to visit my grandmother in the country south of Burleson, my dad stopped the car to pick thistles and flowers for me to take to my students in order to teach them about plant life in Texas.

The weekend ended too soon and when it was time for me to return to Dallas, I found his note on the breakfast table. It simply said, “Te amo, Padre.” And with that he left us, the victim of a sudden massive heart attack two days later during a time that preceded modern advances in cardiac care. 

Yet, his influence in my life, on my values and beliefs about critical issues of integrity, respect, fairness, acceptance, and actions that go beyond tolerance, endured and continues to guide many of my responses to life.

I write this to honor my dad’s legacy: Learn a new language, care about others, be interested beyond your own small world. His advice today would be the same. In light of the most recent world events from the Paris terror attacks to calls to ban Syrian refugees in the U.S., his simple words sound like good advice for difficult times.

The world in which we live is rife with stress. When we think we couldn’t possibly be further stunned, astonished by the evil in the world, we get the attacks in Paris and threats of additional worldwide terror. Certainly the question on the minds of people everywhere must be, “Could that happen here?” Such fear, while understandable, can lead to xenophobia and that, to regrettable decisions for the nation.

Every age has its challenges. For today, our leaders and citizens must decide how best to address the needs and aggregate issues related to the very large numbers of refugees from Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, Syria and numerous other nations fleeing persecution owing to their political or religious beliefs. Those fleeing for their lives often escape without knowing in which country they may be resettled. Typically, the United States resettles greater numbers of refugees than other countries.

When teaching in the Dallas ISD, I taught children from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, not to mention students from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. They taught me so much. I count the years teaching those students as some of the best in my entire career.

I am reminded that humanity survived Hitler and found a new way. The Greatest Generation soldiered on to, as Stephen Ambrose once stated, “Save democracy for the world.” Surely, better ideas and times await this generation and those that follow.

Each person has the opportunity to make a lasting impact. My father didn’t know his life would end at age 51, but his effect of seeing the goodness in people, his insistence that his family treat people respectfully, and his counsel to explore past the familiar continue to guide my decisions regarding the effective, equitable teaching of all students, including immigrants and refugees who may be linguistically, ethnically, or culturally diverse. 

Melinda Cowart is professor of Bilingual/ESL Teacher Education at Texas Woman's University and Series Editor for the monographic series Critical Issues in the Education of English Language Learners. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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