My son Carlos just got his A.S. degree in Engineering. The road he took to get it is pretty unusual, and nobody would have guessed that he would accomplish what he has. I think there’s a good lesson in the story.
First I should explain that Carlos is not my biological son. He was born in Honduras, a poor country, to parents who were poor even by Honduran standards. We’re not talking about driving a used car instead of a new one — we’re talking about no car in the family at all, feeling excited if for Christmas you get a new shirt and pants because you won’t be getting them any other time of year, and skipping the occasional meal because there is no food. When I first saw the house his family lived in, I was a bit confused — I thought it was a storage shed.
When Carlos talks to friends from his childhood days and tells them that he is a student at an American college, they think he is pulling their legs. You see, as a kid Carlos was a terrible student, ultimately expelled from the eighth grade for causing trouble. He didn’t see the value in what was being said, and wasn’t picking up much of it. It seemed like a waste of time, so he didn’t invest himself in it — and failed miserably.
Since his family was so poor, he decided to help out by working in the banana plantations. It was back-breaking work, and the others on his team — all much bigger than Carlos — were expecting him to fail. He surprised them all by coming back the next day, and the next — soon he knew not only that job, but other jobs on the plantation as well. The money was a huge help to his family. Carlos really wanted to help his younger brothers and sisters, especially Delma, whose life he saved when she was a toddler — they have a special bond.
But it was really hard work. One day he was taking a break, sitting on a tree stump, thinking about the men working with him. Some were in their 50s, and the work was clearly a challenge for them. “If I keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll be working on a plantation in my 50s just like them,” he thought to himself. So when the opportunity came to join his mother in the US, he took it.
Coincidentally, within days of his arrival he went to his mother’s graduation ceremony — she had earned her GED (high school equivalency). She was given her diploma and led to a podium with a microphone to say a few words; tears streamed down her face as she thanked everyone.
Carlos had planned to work with his brother in construction, but I told him that if he wanted to get his GED too, he could, and that it would help him. “Here in the US,” I told him in Spanish, “a young woman’s parents may not want her dating a guy who didn’t finish high school. And there are lots of jobs that require a high school diploma.”
The next day he came to me and told me yes — he would like to get his GED. “Great!” I told him. “Let’s see how much you learned in Honduras. What’s 7 times 9?”
He thought for a few seconds before admitting that he had no idea. In math, at least, he remembered very little. Probably he had never learned very much in the first place; he had never had a textbook of any kind. My heart sank a little — it had been a long struggle tutoring his mother through her GED, and Carlos seemed no better prepared.
But he began taking classes, and I set up a whiteboard and helped as best I could. Pretty soon he understood fractions and basic geometry. He tells his friends now that I taught him Spanish, just to see the surprise on their faces; of course he already spoke Spanish fluently, but he needed to learn the basic concepts of Spanish grammar and improve his use of it in writing. It must have felt very strange to have a gringo explain to him how his own language works.
Algebra was a problem. I tried again and again to explain what was going on, taking different approaches, but he just didn’t get it. He couldn’t even tell me what part he didn’t understand — it just wasn’t working. I resigned myself to the idea that that would be where he stopped with math.
But Carlos surprised me. Instead of giving up, he spent day after day with the books (finally he had books!), and before I knew it he was doing basic algebra. He passed the math test easily.
He ended up with his GED in far less time than it had taken his mother. A GED is really not the equivalent of a high school education, but it was still a huge accomplishment given how little he knew when he started. And remember that this is the same kid who was ejected from school in Honduras. The neighbors, who are well-educated, cheered him on; in particular a pair of math teachers across the street were quite fond of Carlos and helped him celebrate his success.
Carlos had enjoyed his taste of algebra, once he got the hang of it, so when we ran across a thick elementary algebra textbook in a used bookstore I asked him whether he wanted it. He did. He disappeared into his room and started working through it on his own. He worked through far more problems than a teacher would have asked him to do, and he mastered the material.
Carlos had to study English for a couple of years before the community college would let him take regular college classes, but eventually he got there. He took College Algebra, then Trigonometry, then Pre-Calculus, and did well in all of them. He liked it. On he went to Calculus I, Calculus II, and Calculus III. Most people can’t handle math classes at that level — who would have guessed that this eighth-grade dropout would do well in them. Then on to Differential Equations, Statistics, and Discrete Math. Carlos has now taken all but a couple of the math classes offered by the community college (and is signed up for one of the remaining courses this summer), along with a lot of physics and chemistry classes and of course the usual requirements for English, Humanities, History, etc. At first it was a huge struggle for him to write even a small paragraph, but now he writes several papers in English every semester and gets good marks. He can now use Windows and Linux and a variety of tools that run on them — even program a little in Python. And his GPA is a hair over 3.5 — not bad for someone who spoke no English and had essentially no education eight years ago!
So what the heck happened here? How can this guy who is remembered in Honduras as the class clown and a dropout have accomplished so much here in the US, and in a different language? Clearly he was smart enough to have succeeded in Honduras; why didn’t he?
I think in large part it boils down to attitude. Oh sure, Carlos was much better supported here, and the quality of education is clearly better. But I’m pretty sure that fixing those things alone wouldn’t have done the trick. In Honduras Carlos couldn’t relate what the teacher was talking about to his life — it all seemed irrelevant. But he came to the US, watched his mother’s success in education, began interacting with educated people with good engineering and teaching jobs and an understanding of all sorts of things, and he saw the relevance. He had worked for years doing back-breaking labor that paid very little, and realized it was a dead end. When he got here he quickly realized that there was a lot he could learn, that he would understand the world around him far better. He understood that the more he learned, the more he could contribute, and the more he would be rewarded financially. He had always wanted to contribute; it just hadn’t seemed to him that school had any relevance to that. Now it did.
So when Carlos had trouble with a subject, he didn’t give up — he just kept working at it, surprising me more than once with his determination. Carlos feels tremendously fortunate to have gotten this education, and he isn’t going to give up easily when there are problems.
There was in fact one semester in which Carlos stumbled: he had discovered YouTube and Facebook and was spending too much time on them. I knew nothing of the problem until he came to me one day, handed me the laptop, and explained what had happened. He was honest enough with himself to realize that he had screwed up and to know what needed to be done — he cut himself off. It was entirely his idea; he had come too far to let an addiction to the Internet steal his future. He ultimately had to take the laptop back, of course, to do his schoolwork. And the Internet is his connection to much of his family and to his old friends; he needs to spend some time with that. But to this day he comes to me and asks me to cut off his access to the Internet for a week (I use a MAC filter on the router) when he has a lot to do.
Carlos is smart, but he’s not a genius — the magnitude of his success owes more to attitude than aptitude. I find him an inspiration. And I look at Carlos and feel sorry for the many American youth who achieve far less in spite of having so much more support. He tells me about classmates trying to throw together a paper the night before it is due, seldom coming to class, doing the bare minimum it takes to get a passing grade. They have none of the handicaps Carlos had, but they lack his desire and determination to learn, to succeed academically, and to give back to society.
I can’t help but wonder whether they would be doing better now if, before starting high school, they had spent a year or two hauling bananas…