Thursday, May 18, 2017
Ariel Romero came to Arkansas from Honduras with his missionary parents when he was 6 years old. Technically he was an alien; he just didn’t realize it till a decade later when he applied for a driver’s license. Papers or not, he would go on with his thus far signally successful life, first at Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville where he was valedictorian of his high school class. He was able to avoid deportation thanks to a federal policy — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — and this country was able to avoid losing a promising immigrant.
There are times like these when the thing to do is nothing at all but continue to sail on. Mister/Señor Romero would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, and now all of us can look forward to seeing what he’ll do for his state and country in the years ahead.
Patricia Rodriguez, who’s 31, described her quite different journey to a successful academic career as she told of raising her son Diego, now 16, as she delivered her commencement address at a larger school than Northwest Arkansas Community College, where she’d started her collegiate studies before transferring to UAF. “Being a single parent,” she noted, “all of the responsibility falls on me.” And she was wary of going to the big university across the way. “Even though I grew up in Fayetteville,” she adds, “the University of Arkansas was really scary to me. It just seemed intimidating and unattainable.” Now she makes it a point to take her teenage son onto campus regularly, “so that he knows the university is for him, too.” One of the great advantages of starting off at a community college is learning that challenges can be mastered one small step at a time.
Consider the struggles and temptations that another new graduate of UAF, 21-year-old Kathryn O’Guinn of Texarkana, encountered as she began her college years with high expectations that were soon lowered dramatically with the death of her grandmother, who was like a second mother to her. She thought of killing herself. “I had a plan. I was about to execute it,” she recalls now in a happier moment. She had to be hospitalized, and perhaps she also had to picture what her family and her world would be without her. For contrary to the popular assumption, our life does not belong to us, as if it were a house or car or closet full of clothes. When we take our own life, it is not only an act of supreme ingratitude to the Creator who gave it to us, but a theft from all those whose lives our own touches. Besides, there are sure to be brighter days if we’ll just stick around to see them.
The wisest and most relevant words ever spoken may be these: This, too, shall pass. And it does. While what matters stays. Just as Kathryn O’Guinn now realizes. The feeling of accomplishment, she now says, “is way bigger than the feeling that you may feel in the moment where you don’t really want to do anything any more.” Amen.
At another, smaller branch of the University of Arkansas, so small it might as well be a community college, one of the speakers told her story, and it was not so much one of rags to riches as a story about how she went from fear and envy to a life now full of possibilities. “I grew up in Syracuse, New York. . . and we were very, very poor,” recalled Eileen Kradel, former vice president of compliance of Washington Regional Medical Center. “I lived in a housing project, we were on welfare, I stole penny candy from the corner store . . . I had a little gang. I beat up a girl once because I thought she looked rich.” But her teachers transformed her into a responsible adult, responsible especially to herself.
Speaking of those teachers, Eileen Kradel told these assembled students: “Those women were my inspiration—they cared for me, they were brilliant, and so at one point, I had to start making a decision. And one of the important messages that I wanted to give to you is: You and you alone are in charge of those decisions about your life. I had to decide whether I could keep going with my gang . . . or do something else. And with the encouragement of the teachers, I got all A’s to please them . . . . And I took the fork in the road and realized that my liberation was education. And that was my choice.” For which all of us, including future generations, can be most grateful.
One superannuated editor whom we’ve come to know rather well over the years — intimately — hails from south of the (state) border and likes to think back with gratitude on those halycon days when Centenary College was just a nice long walk from his family’s house on Forrest Avenue in Shreveport and recall the best teachers it was his privilege to know. The very best, he says, was Mary Warters, who was able to teach even his decidedly non-scientific mind something about biology, comparative anatomy and genetics. He can close his eyes even now and see her standing in front of one of those old-fashioned blackboards with a differently colored pieces of chalks between the fingers of her left hand. She would pick one after the other out of her hand and then swiftly sketch the different systems of the human body on the board with her right: integumentary (skin, hair, nails), muscular, skeletal, circulatory, nervous, lymphatic, respiratory, endocrine . . .
It was Dr. Warters who pointed out how nature can dominate nurture, as when identical twins separated at birth turn out as alike as peas in a pod. That distinguished faculty also included Dr. Clark, whose first name to him was just Doctor, and who taught the Old Testament the same way Rabbi Leo Brener had taught it to him in cheder, the oneroom school in the basement of the old synagogue his family attended. The rabbi taught it line by line. Dr. Clark taught it the same way, except in the Elizabethan/Jacobean English that was his specialty. Which may be why to this day one of his favorite if zany theories is that the Hebrew Bible was first handed down from Sinai in early 17th-century English before being translated into ancient Hebrew.
Some things don’t change. Like this ancient commandment: Choose life. Or piece of sound advice from a latter-day sage named Henry David Thoreau: Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. Which is what this state’s community colleges are still capable of doing. For smaller can still be better.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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