A lesson that means the world

Thursday, December 19, 2002

The hour hand had just passed the seven on the clock in the Iowa Central Community College classroom, and students sitting in the Storm Lake building were just beginning to review their answers to last week's assignment covering the history, culture and customs of the United States.

It was a Friday night, an evening where most people would rather be sitting in a gymnasium or restaurant or chair by the fireplace, but the students in this class would not have traded their seats in room 10 for the world.

Passing this history class would make the two hours spent in the classroom each week worth the world, because the reward would be much more than a good grade or a diploma or a feeling of satisfaction.

It would mean citizenship in the United States.

Friday night study sessions usually aren't as moving as this one was, but study sessions involving economics or geography or aerospace engineering just don't compare to ones that will grant a person a permanent place in American society.

This study session was about obtaining the right to call themselves American citizens, a privilege few in the world have and one that fewer of us who do have really appreciate every day.

Passing this class would mean gaining the right to vote in local, state and national elections. It would mean obtaining the right to head up school boards or be on the City Council. It would mean being counted in the census, being protected under the Bill of Rights, and getting the chance to proudly wave the red, white and blue from their front porch.

It would mean the world.

So, it was powerful to see them intently study questions most of us knew in high school. How many stripes are on the American flag (13), who the current vice-president is (Dick Cheney) and what the three branches of U.S. government are (legislative, judicial, executive) were just some of the numerous items they needed to know for the test.

In addition to knowing when the Constitution was written (1787) and what it replaced (the Articles of Confederation), the people in the class needed to learn about the customs and traditions of this country. They needed to know the history of holidays such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day and know why we celebrate them the way we do.

They also needed to learn how to speak basic English, a tongue many who have lived in the U.S. their whole lives have yet to master as their first language, let alone their second, as these people are trying to do. They needed to know how to say hello, how to ask for directions and how to recite the oath of nationality in English.

It all sounds simple to most of us. But, if you moved to Belize or Guatemala or Poland, would you know who their vice-president is? The type of government that country has? How many stripes, if any, are on their flag? How to say hello in Slovene or Portuguese or Greek?

The questions aren't so easy when you think of them in that context, and it shows how much dedication and commitment each of the people in that classroom are putting in to reach their goal of becoming U.S. citizens.

All of them immigrated to this country for the same reason all of our immigrant ancestors did: to be a member of a society that allows them to be free and pursue an opportunity for a better life. They all truly want to be citizens of this country, and are willing to sacrifice time and effort to make sure they are able to achieve that important goal.

It was a powerful sight on Friday night, and not just because of the hope and anticipation and excitement that was evident on the faces of the people sitting at the desks.

It was because all of the people in that room were studying to become Americans.

What better homework assignment could there have been on a Friday night?