What Does It Mean To Be An American?

By Mr. Gary Stern, Head of School.

2016 and the first month of 2017 have been a time of great reflection and soul-searching about our great country and what it stands for. More recently, the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, the inauguration of a new president, and the upcoming Presidents’ Day holiday continue to provide inspiration for deep contemplation.

Compelling questions abound. For instance: What does it mean to be an American? What are the core values that bind us? What do we teach our children about America and what it means to be an American?

As a parent, a head of school, and an American, I grapple with these questions every day. To make sense of it all, I often find it comforting to think about my own story.

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What does it mean to be an American? What are the core values that bind us?

Each of us has a unique and powerful story to tell, so I’ll start by sharing my own.

Mine is the story of Eastern European Jewish immigrants escaping poverty and prejudice. It is the story of my own grandfather and grandmother, arriving at Ellis Island penniless and with little but the clothes on their backs, a commitment to hard work, and the burning desire to pursue something called the American Dream. I vividly remember my grandfather telling me that, as a newly arrived 19-year old immigrant, he believed the streets of America were literally paved with gold and opportunity. I remember my other grandfather telling me about his miraculous, heroic escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in World War I, and how he fled to America aboard a cargo ship.

I am the grandson of impoverished immigrants who believed in the American Dream. They sought a better life, worked tirelessly night and day, and—through vision, faith, family, and hard work—did indeed realize the American Dream. I remember my grandparents’ love of America, and their Horatio Alger stories. “Only in America!” my grandfather would always exclaim. “Only in America!”

America is a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of dreamers. We are a nation bound together around the core values of democracy, equality, and freedom. Our nation is great not because we must speak with one voice but, rather, because we are diverse. Our nation is great because we are inclusive. Our nation is great because we believe in liberty and freedom. We believe in individual initiative and opportunity. Our nation lives and breathes Emma Lazarus’ words, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free /

Our individual and collective stories define what it means to be an American. What is your family’s story?

What do we teach our children about America and what it means to be an American?

At High Point, the six C’s of 21st century education thrive, and one of those C’s is cross-cultural understanding. Every day, we teach our children that each of our stories is the story of America. In fact, nowhere is this commitment more evident than on International Day, coming up on January 27th, when we celebrate, embrace, and affirm that all cultures and traditions give America its strength.

The truth is, each of our unique journeys defines what it means to be an American. That’s why the first step in developing cross-cultural understanding is to affirm and embrace our own identities and heritage. By doing so, we can then appreciate and understand the identities and rich heritage of our friends and peers. We can then branch out even further and develop an understanding of people and cultures around the globe—an essential 21st century life skill in a transformative, global world.

Through this process, we teach our children the following:

That America is a rich mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and backgrounds from countries throughout the world. That Americans not only embrace this rich mosaic, they take great pride in their heritage, traditions, and customs, individually and collectively.

We teach our children that Americans share and celebrate our unique stories. And in doing so, we foster the essential 21st century skill of cross-cultural understanding.

We teach our children that Americans are united by common core values: We are kind, friendly, respectful, and honest. We are understanding, we work hard, and we believe in freedom and liberty for all.

We teach our children that Americans do not judge others by what they see on the outside but, in the words of Martin Luther, King, Jr., only by the “content of their character.”

The Importance of an International Community

High Point is a beautiful reflection of America. Our community is a rich mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and backgrounds. We are bound by cherished values. We are a close-knit family in which everyone is welcomed and embraced. Our students’ commitment to community service and outreach demonstrates, every day, that inclusiveness and appreciation of others’ perspectives, heritage, and history makes us all the best Americans we can be.

Yo-Yo Ma, the French-born American cellist and United Nations Messenger of Peace, may have put it best when he said of America: “Our cultural strength has always been derived from our diversity of understanding and experience.” Happily, our children intuitively appreciate this principle. The future of America is therefore bright, for our children are the future and they understand that, above all else, character counts. When we as parents and educators nurture the very best instincts of our children, our children will lead the way in ensuring that the future represents the very best of America.

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