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Sharing Our "America" Stories

Sarah Pelmas, Head of School
When I was a child, one of the great treats of the holidays was my Swedish grandmother’s spritz cookies. They were a kind of shortbread cookie, though shaped like a bumpy, striped rectangle. My grandmother, like many immigrants from “the old country,” never used a recipe in her life and could not really tell us how to make them. “Some butter and sugar and flour,” she would say, as she walked away toward her next task. After her death, one of my cousins spent hours trying out versions of shortbread to get to just the right combination. But still, of course, when I try to make them, they are not right. Part of what made my grandmother’s spritz cookies magical was that they carried the aromas of her kitchen and were on her funny plates, with wax paper covering them just so.

My grandmother was a serious, religious woman, someone who had grown up in a Swedish enclave in Estonia, and came to Brooklyn in the 1920s, following family members who had been driven out by the Russians a few years before. She only knew farm life, so she could build anything, cook anything, and sew anything. She worked as a housecleaner all her life, up until a few months before her death. Education was very important to my grandfather and her, and they raised both their sons to be engineers. Still, she could never understand my own educational path, especially humanities graduate school. “What do you want to read another book for?” she would ask me. In her world, if you couldn’t build the house you were living in, you didn’t know anything at all.

In December, the Parent Network for Diversity (PND) hosted a forum titled, “What Does It Mean to Be An American?” It was, without a doubt, one of the most moving and profound experiences I have had in this community. The PND leaders planned a perfect schedule for the meeting: they would each tell their brief answer to that question, then we would go around the room and introduce ourselves and offer one word about how we were feeling in response, and then we would move on to some questions for general discussion. The leaders’ introductory responses took the form of telling one of the immigrant experiences from their family’s story, each one a unique but somehow familiar gem, of brave parents and grandparents coming to find a better life for their families, of challenges trying to find work, of learning the language, of understanding the school system, of loved ones left behind in the old country. They talked about who they are as a result of their parents’ courage, and also of the struggles they face themselves in their own daily lives, how hard it is to be asked “where are you from?” simply because they have brown skin or a way of speaking that sounds “different.”

When the time came for everyone else to introduce themselves and say their word, instead the stories poured out. Everyone in the room, of course, had a story: one woman descended from enslaved people, one from Holocaust survivors, one escaped from a cruel dictatorship, one whose parents left an impoverished island nation with nothing but themselves. So many beautiful, harrowing, uplifting, maddening, inspiring stories of families determined to make the world better for themselves and their families. And, like my grandparents, all these immigrant stories included a singular focus on the importance of education. “Education,” offered one father, “is what you can carry with you wherever you go.”

Many things united everyone in that room, but we were there first and foremost because our children are at Winsor, because education matters tremendously—as much as ever—and because we are all part of a community committed to raising these young people in the best way possible. That room full of strong, loving parents, showed me the very best of this Winsor community. What stories we have among us! And how little we share those stories, I think. What would it be like to ask one another our “America” stories, and to listen deeply to what others are saying? As one parent said that morning, “a story is the thing that can get into the cracks. It can make all the difference.” So often I have found that asking someone, “where did you grow up?” can open up worlds for each of us, and draw us closer together. And yet, when is there time?

I urge you, and all of us, to make the time. I hope your children know all the immigrant stories of your family, and all the stories around those stories. I hope they ask; but if they do not, I hope you will tell them anyway. This is an aspect of education that doesn’t always make it into the classroom—our personal stories—but in the end it is the reason for everything we do, and the way we will grow as a people and a nation. I am so grateful to all the parents who shared their stories that day. It was the greatest gift of the season for me, something much like the unique miracle of my grandmother’s spritz cookies.