“How are you?” U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez said as he made his way across School No. 3’s lobby to where several dozen students sat.
He had come early to the school on Dec. 4 to talk to the sixth graders before the array of city, county, state, and federal dignitaries arrived to honor him and rename the school after him.
The students were nervous, yet patient, and well prepared, as Menendez made his way to where they sat.
Some smiled, many looked a little embarrassed not knowing exactly how to answer any question from one of the most powerful people in the nation.
These students had prepared for the reception for days, with younger students painting a flag made of handprints that hung on the wall of the lobby, while for other older students, this became a lesson in civic and social studies. They researched Menendez’s life and political career, said teacher Matthew Seta.
“He makes a great role model for our kids.”—Mayor Felix Roque
This drew a significant show of hands from the students.
It was question he liked to ask, because he said it said something about America and its ability to serve as a springboard for dreams that few other countries could offer.
But if Menendez thought the question and answer session would be only puff, he soon found out differently.
Students asked him a variety of questions about jobs, the environment, and international relations. A student named Haley asked him about his support for medical reform and whether he was in agreement with recently elected U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
After a brief pause, Menendez said yes, and that he often conferred with his colleague on a variety of issues.
But he said many of the issues that students will face are the same as those he faced growing up.
“You’re growing up in a world that is different from the one I grew up in,” he said, but added that education is still the key to the future.
A local role model
Although Menendez grew up in Union City not West New York, teachers said, he has become a role model for kids who parents have immigrated here.
Chairman of the very power Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the U.S. Senate’s “Gang of 8” who wrote comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Menendez grew up much like these kids did.
His father, a carpenter, and his mother, a seamstress, immigrated to the United States from Cuba. They lived in a tenement in Union City.
Although his mother spoke very little English, she insisted that Menendez read his homework assignment to her every night.
“From as young as I can remember, my mother drilled into me that “education is the key that unlocks the door,” Menendez said later during the ceremony that officially renamed the school in his honor. “She was right. It did. I worked hard. I stayed in school. And now I’m one of 100 United States Senators and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”
He said it all began with a supportive family and a good education, and he credited his speech teacher, Gail Harper, with teaching him to believe in himself.
In high school, Harper – who was invited to the event but could not attend – refused to allow him to avoid her class’ public speaking requirements. Her efforts helped transform an introverted teenager into a powerful public speaker.
“My mother and Miss Harper made me understand the power of education what it means to put a premium on learning and working hard,” Menendez said. “They taught me that what’s really cool isn’t being the toughest. It’s working to be the smartest. And having the knowledge to understand the world around you can give you the power to change it — the power to make history.”
Menendez because the first in his family to go to college, graduating with a BA from St. Peter’s College in Jersey City before going on to get his Law Degree from Rutgers. He became a strong advocate for education programs such as Head Start and the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act.
“The teachers, administrators, and staff here and at every school in New Jersey are opening up a world of ideas and opportunities,” Menendez said, singling out the students in the public session. “They are handing you the key to a better future for you and your families and it’s up to you to learn all you can learn so you can be everything you want to be…. Who knows, one of the sixth graders here may one day become the next Stephen Spielberg, start the next DreamWorks, the next Pixar Studios.”
Dignitaries came to honor Menendez
The array of public figures who attended included prominent politicians, but also close friends with whom Menendez had grown up.
Local officials supported the move because Menendez’s experiences mirrored many of those who currently attend West New York schools.
Mayor Felix Roque said the naming of the school after Menendez was a perfect match, noting the even coming out of high school, Menendez fought for what he believed was right, and became the youngest person ever on the Union City Board of Education. He later became mayor, state assemblyman, state senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and now a U.S Senator.
“He makes a great role model for our kids,” Roque said
Rep. Albio Sires called this a great day in West New York, Hudson County, and the state, and said Menendez is a product of the public schools, one who proves that if a person works hard in America, he or she can achieve.
“When one of our students walks down 54th Street and sees the name Menendez on this building, they might think if they work hard enough and have enough determination, they might too become a U.S. Senator,” Sires said.
Learning to fly
Menendez celebrated public education saying that has always “given us the best and brightest and turned dreams into reality.”
“There’s an old saying for which I’ve never found the source, but it goes like this: ‘When you come to the edge of everything known – and ahead is only darkness – faith is knowing one of two things will happen: either there will be something solid to stand on; or you’ll be taught to fly.’ ”
He added, “At this elementary school, let’s commit ourselves to giving every student both a solid place to stand, and teach them to fly.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.