Go, Now.

Remember how in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one of Douglas Adams's characters is responsible for summarizing the planet earth? In as few words as possible? Because the encyclopedia for which he writes has limited space?

Space is at a premium because there are well over a billion stars in our galaxy. A billion anythings is a lot. Even just a little information about each of a billion anythings adds up.

Just how much is a billion?

I was hoping you'd ask. A billion seconds ago, Disco was king; a billion hours ago, Marc Anthony and Cleopatra were shmooching; a billion years ago, uni-cellular organisms had not yet figured out how to hang together and trilobites were far in the future. In short, a billion is a whole bunch.

So with a billion stars--never mind how many planets--and not much room to describe each one, the Earth gets the following write up: "Harmless."

I miss the genius of Douglas Adams.

And in his memory, I'm going to summarize, the second book of the Bible, Exodus, in one word. That word is "Go!" If I had the luxury of two words to summarize Exodus, those two words would be, "Go, now!"

Fast forward a couple of millennia from Exodus to August 31, 1939 in Italy. The grandparents of my good friends learn from a high ranking colleague in the government that the Nazis are going to invade Poland the next day and that Europe will no longer be a good and safe place for them to live.

"We're going," says Grandma, handing her 10 year-old daughter, Fanny, a small suitcase.

How does a pre-adolescent pack a lifetime into a carry-on? Her books won't fit (although her daughter will grow up to win awards for university teaching;) her musical instruments won't fit (although her son will grow up to play trombone when he's not doctoring;) her toy blocks won't fit (although her other son will grow up to be a builder and developer.) What to bring? A few photographs of life in a country to which she will never return.

And whatever is in her head.

Cuban American families also know the lesson of "Go, now." "We came with nothing," they say, as if reciting from the same script. "The only thing they can't take from you is your education."

The only thing they can't take with you is what's in your head.

A credential, a piece of paper, a degree, a transcript. None of these artifacts have meaning in a new country. Contrast Fanny's story--her will, her drive, her ability--with the following conversation:

Student: "I have an 'A' in Algebra II. Can I get into a good college?"

Counselor: "I love algebra; used to teach it at the junior college. Tell me your favorite part of the course. What topic do you like the best, conic sections, complex numbers, logarithms?"

Student, after a pause and a downward glance: "Actually, my teacher doesn't know any math, doesn't teach. So we watch movies and if you don't misbehave, you get an 'A.'" The student looks up, brightens and continues. "And I do have an 'A.' So can I go to a good college?"

How do you think this student with the 'A' on his transcript will be able to compete with other students who actually know things--other than just how to watch movies? If the time comes, do you think he will be able to work hard, to learn a new language in a new country, to make a life for himself and his family the way Fanny did? Do you think that he'll be able to do whatever it takes, get the job done, work as hard as necessary? Do you think he'll be able to succeed in difficult circumstances?

Or would you agree that his chances of success are about a billion to one?

2 thoughts on “Go, Now.

  1. Martin

    A billion to one sounds pretty harsh. Maybe a million to one?

    The “A” for sitting quietly when the movie is on doesn’t count for much, it’s true. Maybe if he had a (different) teacher who did bring out the conic sections models and let the students trace them and see how the equations could be made to make the same curves? Maybe if he was encouraged to use a pencil and a piece of string? … you can see that I LOVED conic sections! And especially loved learning that the same curves describe the way that Mars and the Earth go around the sun! Wow!

    Suffice to say that I did not get an “A” in Algebra 2. But I got into an excellent, highly selective college anyway. Funny how these things work out. (Maybe the interviewer asked me about conic sections; I don’t remember.)

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  2. Martin

    Conic sections aside, it takes a certain kind of head to get out of Europe in August 1939, find a country that will let you in, and make a go of it in a new land. Maybe like some of the Syrians and others trying to get into Europe now. Editorial: maybe what some (who think getting an “A” for watching a movie should count for something) have to fear from the new immigrants is not that they will use bombs or guns when they get here but that they are damn sure they are going to work like crazy and make sure their kids work like crazy to learn how to succeed in a country where they have a chance.

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