(My friend Ange-Marie told me this story over lunch and it simultaneously made me smile and broke my heart. It made me smile because she learned something new about her father after hit death that showed such a giving side to him and it broke my heart that she never got to talk to him about it. I also love this story because I spent my junior year of college abroad and it changed my life and my world view --Melinda)
A man wearing a traditional Indonesian batik shirt approached me in the receiving line at my father’s funeral with tears streaming down his face. “You have no idea what a great man your father is,” he told me. “You have no idea what he has done for our country.”
I smiled and thanked the man, thinking I knew how great my dad was. I knew when he was alone in his office or with a student, based on how he answered the phone. “Hello number one daughter!” meant he was free to chat; just “hello” meant he was advising someone.
Did I know my dad? I’d tagged along with him to workshops and seminars since I was a toddler. At three I was his human “show and tell” project to illustrate language acquisition and reading comprehension theories. As a teenager I bartered with him – mornings spent at a foreign language workshop passing out brochures in exchange for skipping school to stand in line for Prince tickets. After I became a fellow professor, he invited me to speak in his courses. We taught English together in China for six weeks and he became my boss and my dad, a feat not recommended for amateurs!
My dad and I have the same crooked finger, hair color, and smile. We shared inside jokes, an appreciation for old school “Star Trek” and “Planet of the Apes” and a love for gardening. Dad’s “mini-me?” Yep. I knew my dad.
But it nagged at me because the last time I visited, three weeks before he died unexpectedly, Dad showed me a grandparents’ book he had completed for my three nieces. I’d heard most of the stories filling in the blanks, but there were another 10% or so I hadn’t heard. Add that to this grieving gentleman’s comments and I had to wonder – how well did I actually know my dad?
After doing some digging I found several things that I never really knew as his daughter. I learned my dad had personally trained over 100 international graduate students from 18 countries and four continents. They now train teachers around the world to teach English as a second language (ESL) in a way that enhances rather than erases their home cultures. Over his 40 years of teaching he taught different foreign language teaching strategies to hundreds of people who then trained others in their home locations. These workshops, most weekends during the school year and for months during the summers, aren’t available as TEDTalks or on YouTube; he did these live every time during the analog era of the 70s and 80s.
From these factoids I learned that my dad was able to deeply engage with other cultures. He recently administered separate programs for native Chinese/Japanese speakers to get Ohio teaching credentials, and Somali teenagers to learn and practice English in a culturally relevant context. He was learning Chinese, didn’t speak Japanese or Somali but was able to connect because he had a gift for intercultural exchange.
How does a poor Black kid growing up in the segregated South develop such a gift? He decided to take a chance as a master’s student and study abroad with a host family in France. That experience – of learning through immersion in another culture – never left him. He later taught abroad, teaching intensive French courses for Peace Corps in Burkina Faso and Senegal, lecturing in Chile using his fluent Spanish, and teaching English to Wuhan, China’s top students. The kid from Perdido (“lost”) Street in New Orleans even sent all three of his daughters abroad; two went twice.
Knowing about my dad’s gift convinces me that there are diamond-in-the-rough kids out there who can discover their gifts through the experience of studying abroad. So today I donate to The Ohio State University Young Scholars Program Travel Abroad Scholarship in my father’s name. The Young Scholars Program serves hundreds of academically talented, first-generation college students from economically challenged backgrounds. They serve, in other words, students just like my dad was 50 years ago.
If I know anything about my dad now, I know he would like that.
-Ange Marie Hancock-Hodges