“You know”, I said, “if you go back far enough, the overwhelming majority of us are from somewhere else.” We were introducing ourselves during the first hour of the inaugural English conversation class I’m teaching at the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater, Florida, and it was my turn to tell a bit about my own family history. I went on to tell about Dad’s Grandfather Eadie, a Scottish coal miner who almost certainly never even finished elementary school, who immigrated to the US in the late 1870s. His wife and nine children (including my Grandpa Eadie) went through a really rough time after their dad returned to Scotland without them and didn’t come back until the kids were grown. Dad told me that Grandpa Eadie spanked him only once when he was growing up – when he threw some food on the floor. Grandpa told Dad that he, his seven brothers and sister Samantha, had made do with only bread and tomatoes from their garden for lunch and supper for several weeks during an especially lean time, and he’d better never see him throwing food away again “if he knew what was good for him.”
I told the class that even though none of my great grandfather’s kids went to college, they all worked tremendously hard to build solidly middle-class lives. My Grandpa Eadie became a mine superintendent, and his brother, my Great Uncle Walter, became superintendent of the largest shaft coal mine in the world – Orient Number 2 in West Frankfort, Illinois – and was later Director of Mines and Minerals, a cabinet position, under Illinois Governor (and future presidential candidate) Adlai Stevenson. The next generation produced several college graduates, including one of Great Uncle Walter’s kids, who became a widely respected professor of mining engineering at the University of Illinois. A quintessential American story!
On the drive home after that first class, I realized how passionately I – and I think millions of other Americans – feel that America is truly a land of opportunity, even today with the really tough economic times we’ve been through. And I also realized that despite the bombastic, mean-spirited, nativist rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the hustings in the presidential campaign now underway, I (and I hope the overwhelming majority of my fellow Americans) believe just as passionately that the wonderful mosaic making up America – the incredibly diverse mix of national origins, cultures, races, and first languages – is a precious asset and should be a source of tremendous national pride.
I thought of this inaugural English class – and of the uniquely American story I shared – when I read Thomas Friedman’s column in the February 17 New York Times, “Who Are We?” I couldn’t agree more with his observation that America became the richest country in the world “via the motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ – Out of Many, One.”