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This last week we were talking about Independence Day in my classes when the conversation took a direction I didn’t expect. Most of the class was chattering about fireworks, parades, cookouts, and a day off from class. But Tony sat quietly, saying nothing.
“Tony, are you doing anything exciting for the Fourth of July?” I asked.
“I find Americans to be strange,” Tony replied. “You celebrate freedom without fully appreciating it. There are those like me who are not allowed to immigrate here who would give our lives for what you have. Back in my country many of my people are dying because we don’t have your freedoms.”
“What was it like in your country?” I asked.
Tony spoke quietly. “My sister and her husband started a small business. A drug cartel told them that they had to pay some money or they would be killed. They paid what they had but the drug cartel didn’t feel it was enough, so they killed my sister and her husband. Then they went to their home and killed their children. The police did nothing. Many of them were paid off by the drug cartel.
“The drug cartel told my brother and me that they would kill us if we didn’t join them. My brother did join the cartel, but I loved my sister and her family, and I decided I would rather die than join those who had killed them. So I fled to some relatives who helped me get a student visa to come here to school.”
The class had grown silent as they listened to Tony. His voice quivered as he continued.
“I would give my life to stay and enjoy the freedoms I have experienced here. But I am not allowed to stay. If I go back, I will most likely be killed, and my own brother will probably be given the assignment to do it. This country was built by people like me seeking a place to be free, people willing to die for that opportunity. But now those of us who understand what it means to lose freedom can’t stay, while many who have freedom don’t appreciate it.”
I thought about what Tony had said, and it reminded me of something I had read. I shared it with the whole class.
“Tony said some things that relate to what Chief Justice Roberts spoke about at a junior high graduation this week. He told the graduates that he hoped that at times they would be treated unfairly so they could appreciate justice. He hoped they would sometimes have bad luck so they could be conscious of the role of chance in life and realize success is not completely deserved, and neither is failure. He said he hoped they would experience betrayal so they could understand the importance of loyalty. He also hoped they would sometimes know loneliness so they would appreciate good friends.
“Chief Justice Roberts also said that pain will help a person learn compassion. He said those who were graduating from there were privileged, but they should not act like it. He told them to always say hello to those raking leaves, shoveling snow, or taking out the trash.
“Tony is right. We too often do take the freedoms we enjoy for granted. And Chief Justice Roberts is right that we tend to only appreciate something when we experience its opposite. I hope that does not end up being the case for those rights and privileges we enjoy in this country.
“I hope we don’t have to experience hunger and deprivation to appreciate food and prosperity. I hope we never have to see those we love killed in order to appreciate lawfulness. I hope we don’t have to experience misfortune to appreciate our opportunities.
“But especially, I hope that we will not have to experience tyranny in order to appreciate democracy. And I pray that we will not have to know oppression to appreciate the freedoms we enjoy.”
When I finished and we started class, I knew that what a young man had shared was of greater value than anything else I would be teaching that day.