An entire city is a classroom for young newcomer
Eighteen-year-old Jose Hernandez ate his first Christmas cookie - one topped with red and green icing - last week.
Not a momentous occurrence by any means, but one that sparked Hernandez' ever-present curiosity.
"I told Jose that it's kind of a tradition," his host, Robbie Ludy said. "He looked at me, smiled and said, 'I love America.' Jose also has a pretty good sense of humor."
For Hernandez, Christmas cookies, McDonald's and stores filled with everything from HD TV's to jeans and sporting goods are just the perks of his newly adopted country.
Perks, however, are just like the icing on that Christmas cookie - they only go so far.
Hernandez is in America because he wants to do something of value with his life.
So far, the Storm Lake High sophomore has a good start. In the last two years, Hernandez has learned English almost from scratch, and he's pulling good grades in some tough classes, including his favorite, biology. This fall, Hernandez took another step by competing for the Tornado cross country team.
To get to this point, Hernandez has had to make some extraordinarily tough choices dating back to his departure from his native El Salvador in the late summer of 2004.
When Hernandez was 12-years-old, his parents divorced and his father came to America, settling down and living in Storm Lake.
Jose lived with his mother and stepfather, sister and brother in a small city in central El-Salvador. "I had always wondered what America would be like," Jose said.
"I also wanted to see my dad, but leaving my family in El Salvador was hard. Even now, I get homesick sometimes."
In the fall of 2004, Jose enrolled at Storm Lake High, but the going was extremely difficult.
"I had only basic knowledge of English," he said. "I never knew what people were saying, in and out of class. It just made me push harder."
Within six months, he had learned enough English that classes weren't as difficult, and by the start of school in the fall of 2005, Jose felt fairly comfortable with his new language.
"I still have a lot to learn," Hernandez said. "Every day I learn a few new words."
Meanwhile, Jose's biological father had bought a new house in Storm Lake and wanted Jose to work to help pay the mortgage and other expenses.
"I really wanted to keep going to school, because I just want to keep on learning," Jose said.
The Ludys first met Jose last spring when they hired him to do some outside yard work.
"I had asked a teacher at Storm Lake High if she knew a youngster who was reliable," Robbie Ludy said. "She just said, 'I have just the person for you.'"
The Ludys got to know Jose and were taken by his curiosity to learn new words, concepts and ideas.
"Jose is like a sponge in that way," Robbie said. "When people meet Jose, it's not long before they know he's a real special kid."
By the start of the 2006-2007 school year, Jose faced another tough decision - whether to keep living with his father or move in with the Ludys, who had offered to be his host parents.
"It wasn't an easy decision for him," Robbie said. "And Jose didn't make it quickly. He thought about it for a time and decided he wanted to stay in school and live with us.
"I really think Jose sees education as a way out, a door to a better life," Ludy said. "We didn't have many rules for Jose, but one of the most important was you've got to study and keep up with homework.
"I once joked with him about and said, 'if you don't do your homework - I'll kill you,'" she said with a chuckle. Now Jose tells that to his friends at school.
"He really does take school seriously; "he's pulling down straight A's and he's just a very busy kid," she added.
Robbie Ludy knows a thing or two about educating people. She's a professor of special education at Buena Vista University.
With Jose in the house, Ludy's teaching job doesn't end when she leaves the BVU campus.
"He'll come home from school and say, 'I had a good day,' or 'I learned this,'" Robbie said. "When Jose learns new words, he's also learning about new concepts and ideas."
Jose says he can't believe how many choices Americans have in their lives, choices that aren't available for all in El Salvador.
"For my husband and myself, helping teach Jose has helped us rediscover America ourselves," Robbie said.
Jose, meanwhile, is smart enough to know that this country has its problems, some that might not exist in his native country.
"I think there is good and bad in all cultures and countries," he said. "But I like to be positive and look at the good things more than the bad."
As for the future, Jose says he'll have plenty of time to decide which career path to follow. For now, his whole universe in Storm Lake is just one big classroom.
"Right now, I am comfortable being an American," Jose said. "But I still have a ways to go."