American For Sale

Emilio after his naturalization was final. PC: Andrew Payne

As my time teaching and living with teenagers draws closer to an end, I am finding it hard to keep my excitement contained. Teenagers are exhausting in their very own unique way, anyone who knows them would attest to this. So I remind myself constantly that soon this stage in my life will be over and I will be free of these highly-charged, 100-mph, full-bore years forever and be on to something less…less…everything.

The explosive imagination of a young person….

Recently, however, I was reminded of something incredible, something that I’d forgotten all about from a few years back, something that I will actually miss quite a lot: the explosive imagination of a young person who has been deeply inspired by something greater than themselves. You’ve not seen nor felt the powerful force of nature I call teen inspiration until you’ve watched a young person latch onto something they think will make the world better. It’s a tsunami of creativity, unleashed. When an idealistic young person with a goal is turned loose, it’s best just to get out of their way. And that is something about the kids that I will miss dearly.

It costs thousands of dollars to become an American citizen

Into my classroom walked a young man last week, one who graduated high school a few years ago. Once a student in my American Government class, he is now finishing up college and walking a path toward adulthood, a good boy back then and a good man, now. Back when I had him in class, it was during a discussion on natural-born citizenship that he made his first impression on me. Emilio was not an American, but he wanted to be. When this was pointed out for the class, I asked him (already knowing the answer) why he didn’t “just do it.” His response wasn’t what the other kids expected. He told them, No, he wasn’t prohibited by his home country from becoming an American, and he didn’t have any carryover allegiance to that country either, having been raised most of his life in America, and he certainly wasn’t incapable of passing the tests and meeting the qualifications. His English was perfect and he had every bit as much knowledge as any elected lawmaker about how America’s government system works. “It’s the money,” he said, “It costs thousands of dollars to become an American citizen.” Who knew?

Jake and Andrew, 2015. PC: Shelley Holzworth

The next row over sat a young man named Andrew, of the class-clown sort, but also a Naval Academy applicant, and behind him sat his best buddy Jake, another rambunctious and mischievous kid who had plans to attend Auburn University as an ROTC cadet. They were exuberant teens for sure, both a little silly and boisterous at times, being teenagers and all. Hearing Emilio’s story, Andrew spun in his chair in the most uncharacteristically serious way and the rest of us watched their plan hatch in real-time. See, Andrew and Jake were members of our school’s Student Government Association. Members of the SGA were required to propose and chair community service projects that most often resulted in small-scale canned food drives or used clothing collection projects, things that had been done hundreds of times. I watched the two boys get fired up in an all-new way over Emilio. I felt the electricity charging the air as their idea took shape. We all saw it happen right in front of us, the whole class. The boys returned to their SGA class that afternoon with a mission to make the world just a little better, in this one small way. They proposed the project, passed it, and set to work immediately.

They sold American flag decals for $1 apiece. My classroom was ground zero for distribution and the one hundred or so I was responsible for sold out in less than a week. The boys also carried decals around with them and peddled them out in public, in the school lunchroom, the parking lot and on social media. They sold almost a thousand of them, all told.

One thousand $1 American flag decals. It all went to Emilio, to pay for him to become an American citizen.

This is the classroom where it all happened. Jake and Andrew are pictured along with all of the other Senior SGA kids. PC: Tina Lovett Photography, 2015

When Emilio came to see me last week, I was reminded of that incredible day. It’s impossible not to bring up the naturalization thing, it’s the bond that will always exist between us. He shared with me that his parents and his brother also became American citizens, right along with him. The whole family gave up their old lives to become one of us and I got to see it take shape from its beginning. That’s the kind of moment that a teacher like me lives for, the kind I need to focus on more often, instead of all the other teenager stuff. When Emilio came to my classroom last week to give me a hug and to say hello, he asked me if I still had any decals leftover, his was worn out and he wanted a new one. I reminded him that I had zero…all mine sold out in less than a week, remember? He smiled and shrugged. Not a bad problem to have.

Andrew was appointed to the Naval Academy later that same year and is currently participating in an exchange program with West Point. Jake attended Auburn University on an ROTC scholarship and is about to finish up his Mechanical Engineering degree at the University of West Florida. As for Emilio, he is attending the University of Central Florida and intends to become a Physician’s Assistant. He has become a great American, better in many ways than some natural-born Americans I know. He is not obnoxiously political at all, and he never was. As a member of a society now obsessed with tearing down our country on television and social media, and tearing down each other, too, instead I see in Emilio a thankful, upstanding citizen who focuses on the good in us. He is grateful and humble, exactly the kind of American this country needs. And in my opinion, the same could be said for all three of these fine, patriotic young men.

This piece will publish on September 17th, which is Constitution Day in the United States. In honor of the framing of the greatest plan of government ever written in the history of the world, I would like to say to these three young people: May God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America. Thank you for keeping the American Dream alive.

Left: Andrew at the USNA, 2016. Center: Jake and a friend at Chewacla State Park, 2016. Right: Emilio in Iceland, his home country. 2017.

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About Dawn Quarles

Dawn Quarles is a high school political science and American history teacher who moonlights as a blogger and writer. She lives on Pensacola Beach, Florida.

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