Tom talks about what really makes America great

A few weeks back, I wrote something about why would anybody want to be a teacher in Arizona. Some guy e-mailed me and suggested that I'm a shill for public schools because my wife is a public-school teacher. He said that I should do that full-disclosure thing so that the readers can take what I write with a giant grain of salt. In truth, it really doesn't matter what my wife does for a living. I'm smart enough to know that, without great public schools, America wouldn't be America.

The greatness of this country doesn't come from Wall Street or from gun ownership or from capitalism. (We've never really had capitalism in this country; the system has always been rigged, never more so than today.) What made America great was an overarching love and appreciation of freedom, a public school system that gave everyone—from the richest to the poorest—a chance at getting an education, perchance to better one's life, and a national willingness to defend that which is great and had been earned through hard work and sacrifice, both individually and collectively.

The ruling class might attend snob academies in New England, but the people who make up the true guts and sinew of America were educated at the Dunbar Schools and Valley Unions of this country. And they were taught by people who put selflessness ahead of personal income, a desire to help others ahead of an itch to help themselves.

(I hate it when politicians and radio talkers bitch and moan about American public schools while touting other countries where the kids have higher math and science scores. They fail to mention that, in those countries, there is a profound respect for the public-school system and the teachers who work therein, as well as a pay scale that makes America look like a Third World country.)

On a more personal level, I've mentioned (probably too many times) that I grew up in abject poverty. I was blessed to have a mom and a dad, but due to physical limitations brought on by a car crash and World War II injuries, respectively, neither was able to work. I saw the suffering in their eyes as they struggled to raise my sisters and me with extremely limited resources. (Big surprise: The VA dicked my dad big time.) But at least my parents knew that their kids were getting a good education.

Willie Nelson's heroes might have always been cowboys. Mine have always been teachers and coaches. I'm not going to say that they saved me from a life of drugs, crime, and self-destruction. I was never headed in that direction. But they did push me when I needed pushing, they listened when I talked, and they talked well enough to make me want to listen.

There was my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Carpenter, a man about whom I could write a book. Mr. Carpenter was so cool, he would have made Miles Davis feel like Urkel. He was proudly African-American way before anybody else. He had played pro football and occasionally sang with the Metropolitan Opera. He made these giant tapestries of Zulu warriors; each one sold for more than he would make in a year as a teacher. He lived in Bel-Air, right next to Vincent Price, but he taught elementary school in the ghetto out of a sense of duty. He taught me how to play chess and never let me win. When the other kids were being tested on the multiplication tables from one to 12, he asked me to multiply 18 times 17 in my head. He always pushed and I'm eternally grateful that he did.

Oh yeah, he wrangled some tickets and took me and some of my classmates to our first-ever concert—The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.

There are too many teachers to mention, but I admired them all and I tried my best to learn from each one of them.

As for my wife, Ana, she's my current hero and has been for a long time. In a couple days, she'll be inducted into the Sunnyside School District Hall of Fame, a rare honor, well-deserved.

I couldn't begin to count the number of days she has walked through the door at 5 or 6 o'clock after having stayed after school to provide tutoring, carrying a stack of papers to grade. No shortcuts, no skipped steps. She has over 300 units of college credit and, as a Latina woman with an armful of advanced degrees and certificates, you can only imagine the number of cushy job offers that have been thrown her way. But she stays in the classroom because she likes teaching.

She's the advisor for National Honor Society and for Future Business Leaders of America. Every year, she spends a week of her summer in some far-off city, watching her FBLA students compete at the national level. (If she weren't such a good teacher, her kids wouldn't have done well at the Regional and State levels and wouldn't have made Nationals.) She's the Department head, runs the Student of the Month program, and serves on every committee known to man.

But she's not the reason that I am steadfast in my support of public schools. I'm a good American, and supporting public schools is the American thing to do.

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