I’ve been teaching writing classes at a local university for well over a decade now. The quick math in my head tells me I’ve had thousands of students. I have to admit – I don’t remember them all.
He was a forgettable kid when he walked in, but he didn’t remain that way for long. The first thing that caught my eye was when he camped out in the front row. This almost never happens. Even the late arrivals find a way to slide in a few rows back. It’s what I used to do.
He didn’t say much that first few classes. I went about doing my thing, trying to teach and entertain and inspire all at the same time, and he sat quietly taking notes, letting his classmates answer the questions. I got a smile out of him a time or two, but he never really spoke to me. I could have made him, but I don’t really do that. Putting people on the spot tends to turn out badly.
Our first real conversation came when he stayed after class one day. I consulted my roster because I had forgotten his name, and that’s when I saw that he wasn’t a college student, at least not most of the time; he was a senior at a local high school taking advanced classes to get ahead. That’s why he doesn’t say much, I thought. This is fairly common these days, at least in Ohio, but at that time a half-dozen years ago or so, it was pretty rare for a high school kid to get into one of my courses.
We reintroduced ourselves and sat down. He told me he wanted some help writing an essay for a scholarship he wanted to apply for. This is one of the great privileges of my job, so I agreed with a smile. He had a draft with him, so we sat down and got to work. We would continue to do this after class for several weeks, drafting and editing, tweaking and rewording, trying to get to the heart of what this very special kid had to say.
Most of these essays turn out to be coming of age narratives of one kind or another; most speak of grandiose future success that, in almost every case, won’t actually happen, at least not to the degree the students say it will. But they’re kids, and we have taught them to dream big, so a certain amount of hyperbole is expected, though this essay would not deliver on that norm.
There’s a reason I haven’t told you his name.
The essay was many things, but first and foremost, it was a recipe for Jollof Rice. It’s a West African dish, one that I had never heard of before. In his telling of his early childhood in Nigeria, the Jollof Rice in his family was known to be incredibly spicy, uncomfortably so. He described it in a way that made hot wings sound like so much candy. Even the very young children ate it this way.
I didn’t understand at first, just as you likely don’t understand now. Why write about this? What is the scholarship committee going to do with this? I asked the question, and this humble, quiet kid’s response has stayed with me through the years. It laid bare all of my ridiculous and completely unearned privilege, made me small and him so very large next to me. To that point, I had heard the “what” of his story, but not the “why,” and once I learned of it, the world changed – far places became near, and have remained so since.
There’s a reason why it was so hot, why it scorched the mouths of those who ate it. It’s because there wasn’t enough to go around. In order to fill up the bellies that needed filling, the children had to drink a lot of water. For many, it’s the only way to make the hunger pains go away. So the rice is hot because that is the recipe, but for too many, it is also hot because it has to be. As much as it might hurt, hunger hurts more.
He won that scholarship, and I lost track of him after that. I think about him often, though. I think about how he struggled, how his parents brought him here in any way they could. I think about how hard he must have worked; how he learned a new language, made it his own, and used it to get into my class and then on to much bigger challenges. He is many things now, I’m sure, but I wonder if he understands that wherever he is, and whatever he’s doing, he is almost certainly one of the very best things about America. If we meet again, I plan to tell him.
However, our president disagrees:
I could respond, express my disgust and disdain, both of which are quite real. I could tell him that these countries give us more and more of what truly makes us great, but he’d never see it. Racism, greed, and entitlement are a white sheet and pointy hood over the soul, and while we can always hope that simple humanity will take root somewhere in that bulbous, hate-filled, carrot-hued carcass of his, it would be naïve of us to wait for it.
Besides, I have a feeling that all those people from all those shithole countries are too busy making a better America, just as they always have.