BPD Update Online, Fall 2003
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by Ralph Holcomb

Civics Lesson

The sun was setting. I had worked straight through lunch and still needed about an hour to write an exam for my 8 AM class the next morning. The volume of unanswered email was threatening to jam up my inbox. Fixing a grim smile I locked my door, changed my brain to "volunteering" mode, and proceeded to St. Paul's West Side and the Jane Addams School for Democracy. This section of the Twin Cities has traditionally been the point of entry for over a hundred years of immigrants to the Upper Midwest. I drove past Swede Hollow, nicknamed from the time long ago when it was thick with Scandinavian immigrants. Today you're much more likely to hear Hmong or Somali spoken on the porches of those shotgun shacks. I pulled up to the tattered public high school which had recently become the temporary home the Jane Addams School. Jane Addams had outgrown its space at the settlement house down the street and was now looking for a building of its own while occupying high school classrooms each evening.

I was nervous but the tour and orientation helped ... a little. Jane Addams was founded a decade ago with the goal of creating a means for mutual learning across cultures, which at the moment means people from Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Horn of Africa, and folks like me.

After a while we paired up and I met my partner. We dragged those clunky high school desks next to one another and started talking. She's about 35 and told me she has nine children. Her first experience of wind chill was the moment she stepped out of Twin Cities International direct from a Thai refugee camp in January 1988. She had a baby on each hip and one inside her, walking behind a husband and mother-in-law. She will be taking the citizenship test in later on this fall and we studied the photocopied practice questions from a scuffed but earnest blue plastic notebook she'd brought with her. Her English was poor because she remains home with the children all day while her husband works the loading dock of a local factory. Her friends and support are the other members of her clan.

Quick now, what year was the Constitution written? What year was the Declaration of Independence written? Which three amendments deal with voting rights? Who's the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? How does the Electoral College work? ("Poorly" is the wrong answer.)

Do you explain that while it is true only Congress can declare war, in fact over the last 50 years Presidents have blithely ignored that constitutional stipulation? No, you don't, because she has to pass the citizenship test, not write an essay. Do you talk about how "the right to bear arms" has turned Americans into a cult of gun-worshipers? Again, no. You help her pronounce the words "Massachusetts" and "Representative" and "George".

Somewhere during this civics lesson I got hooked. Her spunk was infectious, and she didn't give up trying to pronounce our President's name. I got to thinking no INS bureaucrat's gonna flunk this applicant, not while I'm around. She may call our President "Georgia Bush" but she knows he's President, and she knows that "Wiyyam Renkist" is chief justice, which is, of course, more than 95% of the native-born American public can tell you. And who knows? Someday she just might get the chance to remind Georgia Bush that only Congress can declare war.

In return, and if I work very hard at it for the next few months, I might learn to correctly pronounce the Hmong phrase for "hello."

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BPD Update Online, Volume 25, No. 3, Fall 2003

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