The Joy of Learning

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

Home-schooled. For the longest time, I assumed that all children, like me, were homeschooled by their mothers. I attended Chinese school and art classes, but my mother delivered my first history lesson around our kitchen table––with an Odyssey globe and a trip to the library. Together, we traced Columbus’ journey to the West Indies, read books aloud about the Jamestown settlers, and re-enacted the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving. Later, school continued seamlessly into a lesson on fractions as we measured flour for zucchini bread. On another day, we had science class while working in the garden, peering at soil critters through a magnifying glass. I did not know it at the time, but I was doing school, and I fell in love with it.

Over the years, my school routine and learning style have morphed, but my delight for learning has not. Be it analyzing an APUSH assignment or practicing for a piano concert, I look forward to the joys each new day brings. When I started taking local classes in ninth grade, I was surprised to earn a reputation for being a “smart” student; up until then, I had supposed that my thirst for learning and drive for excellence were norms, not exceptions. I did not realize it then, but I had picked up many of my parents’ values and work ethics.

My mother grew up in Malaysia, where she faced racial and social discrimination in the corrupt school systems. Through her family’s extraordinary sacrifices, she was sent to America to attend college. In graduate school, she met my father: a shy Cambodian who survived Pol Pot’s killing fields as an adolescent. With unspeakable trauma buried in his past, he worked hard to surmount over linguistic and educational obstacles, eventually achieving a master’s degree in engineering.

Both of my parents understand firsthand that education is a privilege, not a right, and certainly not a burden. That my siblings and I would work hard and enjoy the fruits of our labor was taken for granted––after the barriers our parents had overcome, education had become a treasure. My mother taught me to not compare myself to others, but to persevere even if learning did not come easily. I have flunked piano recitals, ranked dead last in a recreational swim meet, and nearly crashed into an elderly gentleman crossing the street while learning to drive––but these incidents only motivated me to persevere. From my father I inherited an eagerness to conquer challenges. With his encouragement, I perfected my magic trick abilities, explored iOS coding, and tackled throwing a football, a daunting skill, which, alas, still eludes me today.

It is to my parents’ delight in learning that I owe my fearless attitude towards obstacles. One particularly vivid memory is from competitive speech. When I first joined, my coaches informed me of my slight Malaysian-Cambodian accent (of which I previously had been unaware). Furthermore, my poor enunciation and shallow breathing habits made my speeches even harder to follow. Week after week, my mother recorded my tutoring sessions, where I re-learned simple pronunciations: “Tuesday,” “vacuum,” “grocery,” and “world” were some of the culprits. Back in my own room, I gripped a wooden chopstick between my teeth and read entire English assignments aloud–– Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost included. Drool trickled out of my mouth like a running stream, but, eager to cross the finish line, I pressed on.

Four years of speech training have brought me a long way. As I stood before several hundred Rotarians last April, poised to deliver a motivational speech at the District Conference, tears almost brimmed in my own eyes as I realized how far I have come. What a tremendous gift my family heritage has been; although nearing the conclusion of my homeschool journey, I will carry this love of learning with me as I pursue my dreams and aspirations in whatever career I choose. I am no ordinary high-schooler, and I would not trade my life for any other.

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