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What is an American?

New York Teacher
Jonathan Fickies
UFT Vice President for Middle Schools Richard Mantell (second from left) meets with UFT members from IS 185 Brooklyn on April 20 to talk about education and labor issues.

American - A·mer·i·can - 'merkn/

What is the definition of “American”? According to Merriam-Webster, an American is “a native or inhabitant of any of the United States.”

Unfortunately, too many residents of this country do not define “American” this way; they believe there are “real Americans” and then there are “others” who speak different languages, have different complexions and practice different faiths.

As educators and union members in one of the largest and most diverse public school systems in the nation, we are more likely to embrace the more expansive definition of “American.” Our students come from almost every corner of the globe and communicate in more than 180 different languages. We know firsthand that the definition of “American” can embrace different faiths, languages and skin colors.

I’d like to explain why this issue of who is a “real American” is personally important to me. My father, Saul “Sonny” Mantell, who passed away in 2000, was a city high school guidance counselor and a proud UFT member for almost 40 years.

Born in Brooklyn in 1926, my father — the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe — grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood and, upon turning 17, immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army because the world was at war and he believed his services were needed.

Basic training took that Brooklyn boy to Biloxi, Mississippi. While he prepared to fight for his country, he endured anti-Semitic slurs and taunts from fellow soldiers who did not consider him a real “American.” Years later, my father told me that he simply could not wrap his head around this. After all, he was born in New York and had enlisted in the army to fight for his country. Yet, a number of his bunkmates clearly did not view him as an American.

The war ended, and my father returned to Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn College on the G.I. Bill. After graduation, he traveled across the country with a couple of buddies from his old neighborhood. Once again, he — and this time his friends as well — were verbally assaulted by people who told them they were not Americans because of their Jewish heritage.

I know how hurt my father was at his treatment during and after the war. He never wanted others to experience that, and he certainly didn’t want my sisters and me to ever treat people in that manner. Accordingly, my parents raised us the way they had been raised — to see people as fellow human beings, regardless of the color of their skin or the faith they embrace.

My grandparents came to this country to make a new life for themselves and their children. As a result of their choice, and the fact that this nation allowed them in, my father benefited and so did I. I am fortunate to be an American, free to say what I think, free to worship as I please, free to make a life for myself and my children.

The life I chose was to become a public school educator and unionist.

My fellow UFT members and I became educators in New York City public schools because we believe that education levels the playing field; with an education, the sky is quite literally the limit for our students. We embrace all our students and do what we can each and every day to help them succeed both inside and outside the classroom.

And as the AFL-CIO, of which the UFT is a member, puts it, “The labor movement is the natural home for new immigrants struggling to achieve economic security and win social justice.”

I believe we have a responsibility as public school educators and as citizens of the United States to treat others as we want to be treated, to look past differences, and to recognize the reason why so many people came to this country and still do: to make a better life for themselves and their families.

That is the true definition of American.