I remember grade school, in a little country school here in this humble, blue-collar river town.
Knox Butte Elementary school had less than eighty students. It was so small that some of our grades were combined – second and third grade shared a classroom as did fifth and sixth grade.
Aside from the typical dramas that kids in grade school have, this little school was peaceful. Everybody knew everybody and their parents too. It was actually quite idyllic.
I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Spilker. She remains my favorite teacher ever. She was funny, she coached girl’s basketball, she kept the peace gracefully, she was a great sketch artist who encouraged my own interest in drawing and anatomy, and she was a Canadian immigrant.
I thought this was really cool, because my maternal grandma was also a Canadian immigrant.
At this point in my young life, Mrs. Spilker and my grandma were the only two immigrants that I knew.
I was proud that I lived in a country that welcomed immigrants.
As I grew, I learned about my paternal great grandfather, Marius Kannegaard Johannessen, who came over here to the U.S. from Denmark. He was a teenager when he came over, without his parents. World War I was happening. He immediately enlisted and fought. His immigration papers were still wet. I thought, and still think, that he was incredibly brave.
I also learned about my maternal great grandfather, Guiseppe Alonso Martino, who immigrated here from Italy, also alone as a teenager, around the same time that Grandpa Johannessen did. At this point in America’s history, Italians weren’t really welcome. I thought my Grandpa Martino was brave, too. It’s really difficult to be an outsider, especially one who was so young and alone.
I’m not sure if the discrimination that he faced as an Italian was part of the motivation for his decision to move up to Canada, but he did emigrate there because he was unhappy here. I also know that he refused to speak, or teach, his children the Italian language…which is something that saddens me to this day. My Canadian grandmother, his daughter, is still proud of her Italian/Canadian heritage to this day, though. Just ask her.
She’s also a proud citizen of the United States.
My great great GREAT grandmother, Anne Fenn (widowed and remarried as Anne Hodgert) immigrated here from England with her Mormon missionary husband, Robert Hodgert, and her children, of which my great great grandfather Thomas Fenn was one of. They fled religious persecution in England because they were Mormon. They came to the U.S., to face more religious persecution.
They were first-wave settlers of Provo, Utah. Life was not easy for them as pioneers, but they survived and later thrived.
I am the product of immigrants: Italy, Denmark, Ireland, England, Canada. There’s, quite possibly, some traces of African as well. Part of my family comes from the South around the Civil War era and they certainly weren’t the plantation owners. The sparse records that exist from that era indicate they were migrant workers of some type.
There’s a faint whisper of Native American blood in here somewhere too, but it’s highly diluted by the European variety.
So, why do I feel inclined to post the details of my heritage?
Well, I’m the product of immigrants. Those who share genes with me, on either side of my family, are as well.
In my line of thinking, it’s sheer and utter hypocrisy for me to point a finger at someone who is coming here to the U.S. to a) flee religious persecution, b) escape a war-torn country, or c) seek a better, safer life in general.
I didn’t “earn” my status as an American citizen. I am the privileged recipient of it through the bravery, blood, and sweat of my ancestors. If the shoe were on the other foot, I don’t know if I would have the same grit and guts that those before me had – or that those who are struggling to get here now have.
I really want to go back to that idealistic eleven year-old kid that I was, in that little school, in that humble town. The current climate in my country is thwarting that sentiment, though.
Our country is better than this hateful, petty, jingoistic swarm that we’ve become.