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We All Have a Big Voice: Appreciating Sylvia Mendez

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Sylvia Mendez

Last week, I introduced my kids to the story of Sylvia Mendez, winner of the 2010 Medal of Freedom for her work (and the work of her parents) in the desegregation of California schools in the 1940s. Their work allowed Mexican children to be integrated into the general public schools alongside their white peers. This was a decade before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case.

My fifth graders were angry that Sylvia and other Mexicans had been forced to go to a run-down school next to a field of cattle. They were particularly incensed when they heard that the Superintendent had called all Mexicans "pigs."

The majority of my school's population is Hispanic. I asked my students to reflect upon this wonderful woman's struggle and accomplishments. I presented them with this question as a writing prompt:

Why should kids here at our school appreciate Sylvia Mendez's story?

Here are some excerpts from their heartfelt responses:

"She fought for freedom, she fought for faith, she fought to keep people safe. We are Hope, we go uphill - not down a slope! If she hadn't done what she did, we would not be a school. So I personally would like to thank her for what she has done. It made life in America way easier."

"Students should know Sylvia's story because they should know that they all have a voice, a chance to change anything, something like racism. We all have a BIG voice. If you want to say anything, say it."

"Most kids at this school are Mexican so that is why we should know Sylvia's story. We also need to know because if we know it, we can stop it from happening again. This could happen to us. We don't want to be segregated from different schools. We don't want eat our food next to cow poop. We don't want to go through court to let kids get to go to the same school."

"She is one of us - not a pig. Not any Mexicans are pigs."

"We should know of Sylvia's tale because most kids at our school are Mexican, otherwise known as Hispanic. So if segregation happens again, we will know what to do because of her."

"We all want to be treated fairly without being called a name and just being the same. But it's also good being different. That's why it's good to know Sylvia's story."

"She is a great person for everyone."

"Because of her, I am a free girl, and I get to go where I want to."

"Sylvia Mendez as rejected at a white school. Her parents fought and won the case and segregation was no longer legal. It is one of the reasons I can come to a good school."

"Kids should know about Sylvia's story because she got the Medal of Freedom for getting Mexicans to go to a white school. She inspires me to do good things."

"Maybe she can change our minds and help us get along."

"Without her, the world would still be segregated. The whole world would be wrong."

"We need to know her story because it would help the school understand why we don't want bullying."

"Sylvia Mendez fought for Mexicans to go to nice schools. If it wasn't for her, I would probably be in a different school. I would be in a dirty, ugly school. If I got a chance to thank her and her family, I would thank them so much.

"To Sylvia Mendez: As a Mexican boy, if I was born back then, I would not like it and would fight for freedom. We are so thankful for you. You deserve the Medal of Freedom."

"Sylvia Mendez is important to me because if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here. I would not have any friends. My parents would never have met. I would have nothing. I'm not sure if I would even be alive to meet Mr. Ramsey. That's why we should know her and why we should know that she is important."

Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2017.

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Tim Ramsey has been an educator since 1983.  He taught middle school and high school for 15 years and served as a school administrator for 15 years before retiring in 2013.  He returned to the classroom where he now teaches writing to seventh graders by day and reading to college freshmen by night.  Tim is an avid writer and has been featured in six Chicken Soup for the Soul compilations.  In addition he has received several first place honors from the Arizona English Teachers Association for its annual “Teachers as Writers Contest.”

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