Last weekend I received a phone call from a Bhutanese refugee here in Abilene. Â In English so much improved from when she first arrived in the U.S. two years ago, she asked if I would look over a paper she wrote for a college class she’s taking.
I said of course, and spent a half hour over chai tea, correcting her spelling mistakes and finding no explanation for strange grammatical rules of English other than “because it just sounds right.”
Her paper was like the ones I was writing in third grade, butÂ later she was glowing when she told meÂ she’d received a nearly-perfect score on it.
I would estimate I spend less time writing eight pages of analytical argument than she does three pages of simple narrative. And unless I’m reading Kant or Nietzche (which I never do), I don’t struggle to read every other word like she does, because English just so happens to be my first language.
That isn’t to say I feel somehow superior or more educated. What struck me as I was reading her paper is how often I take for granted that I am in the fortunate 6.7 percent of the world’s population that holds a college degree – and having done so little to find myself in that situation.
I’ve spent fifteen years often working just hard enough to impress my teachers, spending just enough time on assignments to make good grades and studying just long enough to memorize what I need to know for a multiple-choice test.
My friend, on the other hand, pores over her studies – on top of a 40-hour week to help raise two children, pay the U.S. government back for a flight from Bhutan to Abilene and fund a college education.
When I ask her, incredulous, how she manages everything, she tells me she feels “so blessed” to be working toward a college degree, something I came to expect, however vaguely, by the time I walked across the stage at kindergarten graduation.
So I have to wonder what education would look like if it was approached more as a blessing than as a duty; if it was treated as the long-sought, invaluable gift that it is for my friend and the countless others who didn’t receive it through a middle-class American birth.
I don’t say this to inspire an overwhelming sense of guilt across college campuses in America. I think maybe it just calls for a quiet sense of gratitude,Â even when walking to class early in the morning or reading Shakespeare late into the night.
If nothing else, maybe it calls for a rediscovery of that sense of excitement we felt when we finally got to our first day of kindergarten – the kind of excitement I see each time my friend reminds me she finally gets to go to college.