My grandmother never went to school a day in her life. She never had the opportunity. Her village in western Ukraine didn't have one, nor did any other town she ever heard of. At 16 she came to America to join her aunts, working in a factory in Pennsylvania. And she was terribly homesick.
You never find out all the biographical details of your grandparents. They tell you bits and pieces of their own past and you must gather them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Years later you try to assemble them into a cohesive picture and realize how many holes there still are. But it's usually too late to fill them in.
When I was already a priest, my grandmother and I visited my grandfather's grave. As we walked across the cemetery lawn she stopped in front of me and said in a thick Slavic accent, "You know, Michael, I marry you grandfather because he promise to take me HOME." She walked a few paces more and stopped again, adding, "And then, he died, the bum!"
Yes, suddenly and tragically John Oleksa had died at the age of 32, leaving his illiterate widow with a small farm and four young children. Then, one day, two state troopers appeared at her door, demanding admission to the house. They scolded my grandmother for not sending her kids to school.
Fortunately, in her language, schools were called "shkola" so there was basis for communication, if they spoke slowly enough. She showed them her empty purse, trying to explain that she had no funds for lessons. These poor Pennsylvania policemen somehow had to convey to her the revolutionary concept that in America kids had to go to school but it was free of charge.
This concept was truly revolutionary and my grandmother needed a few hours to grasp it. "In America the children must go to school, but you don't have to pay? What a country!" And the next morning, my dad and his siblings weresent as the first Oleksas ever to attend school.
Before they left the house, their mother lectured them.
"You kids are so lucky. If we had returned to Europe as I had always planned, you would have no school. You would be unable to read or write, like me. You would know no science or math. You would have no chance to study art, music, geography or history. But in America, they make you go to school and you don't even have to pay for it!
"So you better be good. You better listen to and respect your teachers. You better not misbehave. You better not get into trouble. Because if I find out that you were disciplined, that you were punished for misbehaving there, when you get home, it will be even worse!"
With these very serious threats, my father in 1928 hurried down the hill into the village's two-room schoolhouse.
This lecture was delivered in Ukrainian decades before my birth. How do I know it so well?
The night before I left home for kindergarten, this story was related at the dinner table. It had its intended effect: If I ever got into trouble at school, I prayed my parents would never find out. But more, it established an attitude toward school that became part of my own identity. And it served me well for most of my life. My brother and sister also finished college, earning master's degrees, and several cousins did too. My grandmother lived to attend all our college graduations.
Many Native Alaskans had negative school experiences during the last century. They attended classes taught exclusively in English and understood almost nothing. They were verbally and physically abused for speaking the only language they knew. Many dropped out. Many assumed erroneously that they had failed rather than that the system had failed them. And we live with the scars of this tragedy today.
But many also succeeded, despite the odds. Many became articulate leaders of their people, prominent Alaskans and professionals who promote the well-being of their own people and all of us. School today is the means by which we pass from dependency to independence, from being overwhelmed by forces beyond our comprehension to seizing control of them.
School today offers all citizens a path to a better, healthier, happier life. Literacy opens vistas closed to those who cannot read. We may resent some of the requirements the state imposes on graduates, realizing that not every course is well taught and not all courses are ultimately useful or meaningful in our lives, even when we spend good money on the tuition.
But even this is a learning experience. Not everything can be exciting or entertaining, not even in the video age. Some work will forever be drudgery, but it must still be done. Some will even be pointless or irrelevant, but that's life. The sooner we convince our kids of this, the sooner they can appreciate school for all its magic and marvels. They are, like my dad, so lucky to be born in this country. And we should regularly remind them of that.
The Rev. Michael Oleksa is dean of St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska.
This article was published in the Anchorage Daily News on September 17, 2002. Reprinted with permission of the author.