The letters were addressed to the president, and all Manning wanted to do was give them to him.
Some chronicled their experiences coming to the United States — from Syria, Iraq, Uganda, Burma, El Salvador — because they “felt it was important for the president to understand the really rigorous and difficult process and length of time it takes to come to the United States as a refugee,” Manning said.
Some told the president of their dreams and aspirations, the ways they envisioned themselves contributing to society when they got older.
Others just wanted to tell him how coming to the United States gave them hope.
“The thing about our immigrant and refugee students is that they have this innate hopefulness,” Manning told The Washington Post. “They have gone through very, very difficult experiences, but they see coming to the United States as an opportunity. They feel that they can have dreams, and that they can potentially achieve those dreams. It’s really quite beautiful, actually, because no matter what — no matter what they experience — they still have this hope, this resilience.”
Wednesday’s ceremony at the White House was about honoring Manning’s work with these students as an English language development teacher at Joel E. Ferris High School’s Newcomer Center, in Spokane’s public school district. For her achievements, she was named National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
But in many ways, for Manning, it was about honoring her students.
She has seen teenagers who have come from war-torn countries and from refugee camps, who have fled religious or political persecution, who have come home to find a mother killed or have held a brother as he died or have hidden inside a cave to escape being killed themselves. Some arrived knowing no English and some as unaccompanied minors.
Then they go on to graduate high school and proceed to college.
“It’s so amazing,” Manning said. “We can all learn so much from them.”
The 19-year teaching veteran has stood in front of classrooms all over the world, from Armenia to the Bronx. But she didn’t always want to be a teacher. She got a degree in film studies first, then tried out a few gigs working at TV news stations. It wasn’t for her, she said. So she joined the Peace Corps.
That’s how she ended up in Armenia.
“That’s really what ignited my interest in teaching,” she said. “It completely changed my perspective about how people are and what they think and how they live. But I still wasn’t convinced after two years there that I was going to be a teacher.”
It was a small town in rural Texas that pushed her into it for good.
Upon returning from Armenia, she moved to Spearman, a town of 3,300 in the Texas Panhandle. She took an internship helping her aunt teach a summer theater camp, leading debate and speech classes for high school students.
“The first day in the classroom, I was hooked,” she said. “My aunt is a teacher, and she saw me with these kids, and she goes, ‘Mandy, what are you doing? You need to be a teacher.’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t have a degree.’ She said, ‘Just try.’ And I did.”
She got the degree and certificate and then she got a job teaching high school in Amarillo, Tex., where she stayed for a couple years before moving across the globe to Japan to teach English. When she returned stateside the next time, she landed a job in the Bronx — topping off a rich diversity of teaching experiences that Manning said prepared her to work with students from all over the world.
The school district in Spokane serves students speaking 72 languages, she said.
In the seven years that Manning has led the Newcomer Center classroom, the stories of her students have stayed with her.
There was Safa from Sudan, who came to the United States at age 15 with a fourth-grade education. She graduated from high school in four years. Now she is in college, studying to become an elementary schoolteacher.
There was the brother and sister from Syria, who were born deaf and had never learned Arabic, or any language. Once in the United States, they both learned American Sign Language — and so did Manning, on the weekends, so that she could help them. Now they are preparing for college.
Hussein from Iraq came to the Newcomer Center at age 20. In Iraq he had cut hair for soldiers in the U.S. Army. In Spokane, he realized he could pursue it as a career. Every day after cosmetology class, he studied the day’s lesson with Manning, who sought to make the subject more comprehensible for a new English speaker. Now he is a full-time stylist in San Diego.
“There’s so many stories like that,” Manning said. “These students are so determined and so thankful and excited to be here. They’re our future.”
During Wednesday’s ceremony, Trump said that Manning’s “tireless dedication … very much inspires me.”
“Sometimes all it takes to begin the next great American success story is a teacher who really, really cares,” he said.
When Manning handed him the letters, she explained whom they were from, and how much her students hoped he would take the time to read each of them.
He accepted them kindly, Manning said, and then handed them to an aide, telling her to be sure to place them right on his desk because he really did look forward to reading them.
“Of course, I can’t be sure that’s going to happen,” Manning said. “But like I said, my students are innately hopeful.”
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