Forty-four years ago, my dad left home to join the Navy. As a teenager, he imagined big things for himself but saw little of it in the challenging circumstances in which he grew up. And so, intent on forging a different path than he had seen those closest to him take, he enlisted, shipped out, and spent the next 20 years as a medical corpsman, nurse, and nurse anesthetist in Navy hospitals and on ships all over the world.
Looking back, my sisters and I recognize that Dad’s service in the Navy served as our family’s pathway out of poverty. More specifically, we know that the higher education he received because of it – one he never would have access to otherwise – changed the game for our family. The support of Navy allowed him to take classes at the University of Washington and University of Nevada to earn his Bachelor’s, then later at George Washington University, for an advanced degree. This gave him highly valuable skills and meant that there was little doubt in our household as to the value of education.
Growing up, my dad told his three daughters two things: You can be whatever you choose to be and college is your ticket. The military taught him both.
Today, thousands of children growing up in poverty don’t have access to the kinds of educational opportunities that changed the game for us. Here in North Carolina – like in every other state in the nation – ZIP code, income bracket and skin color determine whether a family can expect to get a decent public schooling for their kids. Last year, just 18 percent of our low-income eighth graders and 14 percent of African American students had been prepared to meet the bar for proficiency bar in reading. The result? Every day, we send our military service men and women into harm’s way to fight for an American dream we don’t live up to at home.
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To do right by our veterans and service people (my sister now an officer and pilot among them), we need to change this. Too many brave Americans have fought and died to make our country the land of opportunity for us to fail to do our part. Great public schools can’t create true equity all on their own. But it also can’t exist without them.
The really good news? We can begin chipping away at this right away. For some of us, this will mean attending a local school board meeting and thinking creatively about how to support the effort to provide all kids with equitable educational opportunity. For others, it will mean simply reaching out to the teachers in your life or community to thank them for the tremendous work they do. For others still, it may involve teaching yourself – considering whether a career as an educator might be exactly the path to meaningful impact you’ve been searching for. This year, over 100 veterans and their spouses joined Teach For America to continue their service to our nation, now as public school teachers. They took on this new challenge alongside former business executives, homemakers, artists, lawyers and politicians who recognized the classroom as one of the highest-stakes spaces in which to live into one’s patriotism. In their commitment, the possibility of an America we can be deeply and profoundly proud of shines through.
Let’s think ambitiously about how we can pay tribute to the people who pave the way for our liberties. Let’s remember that their service stands as a call to service for all of us – as citizens, parents, advocates, and even potential educators-in-the-making. Let’s raise a next generation for whom anything is possible. We have no time to waste.
Robyn Fehrman is the executive director of Teach For America in Eastern North Carolina. To apply to become a teacher, visit www.teachforamerica.org/apply.