For many immigrants who migrate to the United States, the American dream is not a white picket fence, 2.5 children and a dog. It is a top-notch education for their children. Period. The right education can lead to the original American dream — a degree in medicine can get you your choice of picket fence — therefore, their kids must stick with academics.
But, like my Guyanese parents and many other immigrant families have found, American primary and secondary schools did not seem to do enough to make this dream a reality.
Kids who fight. Kids who talk back to adults. An emphasis on playing and free time. Time out. Pre-packaged lunches. These were all foreign
concepts to my foreign parents, who were used to schools being rigorous and children being obedient and dutiful. Even in the private schools they sent me to, the schools that were pegged as being the best of the best, these issues cropped up.
That’s why it was of no surprise to me when I read Tomi Obaro’s Style story on local African parents who sent their children back to their homeland for schooling (with a plan for their kids to return once it was time to hit the big leagues: college). For thousands of dollars in airfare and tuition, their kids can go to school at a place where talking back is a crime and spanking is the suitable punishment. Fighting is unheard of because kids who get violent get put out. Play time is earned and not expected. It’s reading, writing and arithmetic. All. Day. Long.
But spending thousands of dollars is not always in the budget. I know it wasn’t for my family and for many of my first-generation American friends. My parents turned to Plan B. They brought Guyana to us.
At home, which I also thought of as Dad’s School, more was expected of me. Take Saturday morning, for example. In the ’90s, I wanted to do nothing more on my day off than watch “Saved by the Bell” and “California Dreams.” Maybe play with my Barbies. My dad had other plans.
“Delece, ‘It’s Academic’ is on,” he would say. As early as I could remember, I had to watch this game show and push myself to remember what X equals and who was the president of Spain in 1878. Sometimes I would pretend I was asleep or avoid going into any room in the house where there was a TV to avoid having to watch Mac McGarry.
But avoiding Dad meant possibly running into Mom. I don’t think there was another third-grader in my class who knew as much about Endust and Glass Plus as I did. Our house didn’t clean itself, and from an early age my brother and I had to learn the ropes.
When it came time for summer break, and many days of my brother and I watching ourselves at home while my parents worked, Dad’s School went into full effect. In June, my family went to a local store where my father selected a number of workbooks. One reading comprehension book for me, and one for my brother. We also had math books and were sometimes required to read the paper. My dad gave the assignments before going to work and checked them when he came home. My mom, who saw early on the value of knowing your way around a computer, left us with typing lessons to complete and academic computer games to play.
No child of theirs would have their brain turn to mush for three months. This workload was in addition to our schools’ required reading.
Our additional schooling was also coupled with lessons in obedience and manners. They weren’t afraid to use physical force if I stepped out of line. And when making a phone call, I was never allowed to say, “Hi. May I speak with . . .” It was always, “Good morning/afternoon/evening. May I speak with . . .” These were lessons I never learned in school.
It’s been about 14 years since I completed my parents’ summer “schooling.” I never thought I would say this, but I don’t regret any of it. Yes, at times it was hard, especially when my American friends could dedicate whole summers to hide-and-go-seek. But it fostered a work ethic in me that helped me get through undergrad, grad school and now my career. And when I read statistics about the number of African Americans who are unable to complete school, don’t have the opportunity to get an education or don’t have parents who care enough to hold their hands as they walk on the path to success, I realize that I didn’t really have it that bad.
Thanks, Mom and Dad. I have the city version of a white picket fence and am working on fulfilling the rest of the dream.
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