It was a long, hard road just to graduate from Immokalee High School in southern Florida. Until 15 years old, she was on that road with her parents, following the harvest across America, from sea to shining sea. There were artichokes in California, cherries in Michigan, and tomatoes in Florida.
Along the way, Maria’s mother found a way to give roots to her family. She worked part time, lived with relatives, and attended adult education classes while the rest of the family continued to harvest crops for a living. Maria’s mother became a licensed cosmetologist. She found a job at a beauty shop in Immokalee. With financial help from neighbors, her family finally had a home.
The rest of the family members also found jobs in the area, and for the first time in her life, Maria became a student who could actually stay in one school for an entire school year. Her grades began to improve. By the time Maria was a senior, her teachers had noticed that Maria was no ordinary girl.
One of her teachers encouraged her to apply for one of the many scholarships the Mensa Foundation gives away at the end of each school year. The scholarships are awarded, to Mensans and non-Mensans alike, based on the quality of student essays evaluated primarily by Mensa volunteers.
Some of these judges see themselves as holy guardians of the English language. Spelling, grammar, syntax, and parts of speech are treated with reverence, and submissions are graded seriously and stringently. Even though Maria wrote her essay in a non-native language, she was nevertheless awarded a scholarship for it.
In addition to being evaluated for proper English, the essays are judged on the writers’ career and life goals articulated in them. Maria had a well-thought-out plan. She aspired to attend college, majoring in education, and eventually pursue a Ph.D. Her dream was to establish a standardized curriculum in all the school districts in the great harvest regions of our country. She knows, firsthand, that if migrant children can get high-quality, consistent education, they will be able to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty that has been so much a way of life for families like hers.
My wife and I were invited to act as masters of ceremony for the Mensa scholarship awards dinner at which Maria and the other scholarship winners that year would be recognized. Our Local Group believes that the parents of these young geniuses should at least be treated to a good dinner at a respectable restaurant, so we get together and treat each of the families. We were fortunate to be seated at the same table as Maria and her mother.
Maria’s mother seemed to tolerate the fuss over her daughter with a benevolent amusement. Maria bubbled. She was irrepressibly charming. She confided to my wife that she was afraid that her makeup had smeared or run before the ceremony had even begun. She explained that they don’t have air conditioning at home, and the A/C in their old pickup hasn’t worked since last year. Maria and my wife left to do the things that women do in front of mirrors. Maria’s mother, who seemed so composed earlier, leaned forward with an intense look on her face. “Maria is going to do something with her life. Thank you for helping,” she said. A slight quiver of the lower lip was the only hint of the feelings behind her matriarchal dignity.
Several of the people at our table were struck with compassion for what we were witnessing. We were also inspired by such a pure example of the American Dream. When Maria returned, some of us began to offer sympathy for all her hardships. Maria wanted none of it. “Things aren’t so bad now,” she said cheerfully. “It has been a long time since we haven’t had enough food.”
In Naples, Fla., we know people who have a bad day if their hot tub springs a leak. Maria thinks things are okay if she has eaten that day. I am glad Mensa could help her out.