Paul Greenberg

When the bell rang, I found my class and tried to follow what the teacher was saying. I didn't get every word or even most of them; her language, her clothes, her stiffness were all new to me, and I couldn't help staring.

She kept addressing someone named Y'all, and telling us to do things, but I had no idea what was expected of me. In the end I settled for watching the other kids and trying to copy whatever they did, though not very well.

At home I'd been drilled in Sir and Ma'am, but Please and Thank You were still novel concepts, and I tended to forget them. Yet they seemed terribly important to the teacher.

This was definitely a different country. Here the kids, when they dropped a book, didn't kiss it when they picked it up, the way we did the prayer books in Hebrew school. Shocking. And everyone seemed so Š cold, removed, distant.

Then the bell rang and I went off to wait for the bus. I knew just where to stand, but it didn't come. I waited and waited andŠ.

Then another lady was talking to me. She, too, was dressed nicely, and she was saying school wasn't over after all, and it was time to go back. I hesitated. She said she'd spoken to my mother, and knew just what I was supposed to eat and what wasn't kosher. I followed her warily.

When we got to the big empty, light-green room with the benches, one of the big ladies came out from the kitchen and set down a cheese sandwich - made with soft white bread - and a little carton of milk. I don't think I'd ever seen one that small, and everything tasted wrong. We never used mayonnaise on anything but salads at home.

But it was good after the first bite. Hunger is the best sauce. The taste of it remains in memory, strange and assuring at the same time. It was a different world, all right, but not a threatening one. I was being looked after. These people weren't strangers after all, and I wasn't a stranger here, either. I belonged. Food is a bond, an assurance, an invitation to education.

Today schools all over the country face the challenge of educating a whole new wave of first-generation Americans, kids who, once they step outside the house and the warm embrace of family, find themselves among a people of strange speech and hard language.

It won't be the first time American education has faced this kind of challenge. How will our schools meet it? Just as they've done generation after generation: One student at a time. Because, as in all real education, in the end the outcome will depend not on abstract measurements or statistical tables or what the politicians and "experts" say, but on what happens between just one teacher and one child. Again and again. And the memories that each of those children will have in the future, like mine at this distance over the years, are being formed now.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.