Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Success Story

Nineteen years ago I was the teacher, he the student. Last night we reversed roles.

He was the chef demonstrating a dinner menu at the local kitchen shop, completely in his element,charming eager adults with his wit and delightful expressions while revealing his secrets of good cooking. Upon being introduced and being asked to tell something of how he came to the Jackson, MS area, he first saluted my husband and me for being the ones supporting him those early years. He's never forgotten the hours we spent completing course assignments, providing lunch money, and being friends to him and his family when they had few. He has taught me more than how to make artichoke dip. He is a constant reminder of our knowing a gracious family who, despite adversity, never lost their smiles, their determination to assimilate into this country without government help.

I met Danny when he enrolled as a tenth grader fresh from Colombia, SA. He spoke no English. I took the opportunity to guide him through the process of acclimating into student life. He spent the first year isolated from friendships, so stayed with me in my classroom mornings before school, activity periods, lunch times, and after school while he waited for a ride home.

However, in three years he gained respect of his fellow classmates with his infectious smile and participation in every activity with the enthusiasm of a third grader. He willingly spent hours after school organizing a dance troupe from our school's Spanish classes. With infinite patience he had football players with oversized feet shuffling and snapping to the rhythms of the Latin music. They and their female partners went on to win first place three years in a row in the performance of Latin American dances. He gave so much of himself to these students that they in turn learned to appreciate his true character. By the twelfth grade he had been accepted.

Danny didn't go to college. He went to work to help his sister Lucy pay for expenses. For over 12 years he worked whatever job in various restaurants to hone his cooking skills. His mother, he insists, is the greatest cook ever.

With $20,000 borrowed, Danny, Lucy and husband formulated plans for their own restaurant with Danny as chef. A few days before opening for fine dining, my husband and I were asked to visit and sample his menu. From that day on he's welcomed us heartily when we've entered his business, always reminding us of his gratitude. He instructs our waiter to give us special attention. When I remarked once how giving he was to bring family members to Mississippi, giving them jobs in the restaurant and helping them economically, he said he'd learned from the best. I blushed.

Last night I proudly watched him mix, stir, and bake a delicious meal. This time he was comfortable among strangers. In his chatter about his life and his philosophy of cooking, he stressed that one can achieve anything if he's willing to work. His audience applauded him and left with admiration for his spirit.

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