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Dr. George Henson

–  Dr. George Henson, former Head Start student, Ralston, OK

George Henson

"Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candlestick."

I can remember reciting that nursery rhyme as if it were yesterday. It was the summer of 1965, and I was a rambunctious 4-year-old. Daddy had just been discharged after a career in the Army, and he moved Mama and us kids—three boys and two girls—from La Rochelle, France to Ralston, OK, a tiny town that lay along the Arkansas River in Pawnee County.

I arrived in Ralston speaking French and English but not knowing my ABCs. Because I was supposed to start kindergarten in the fall, Mama was worried that I would be behind the other children, so she considered delaying kindergarten for a year so I could catch up. Then someone told her about a new program called Head Start.

I, of course, didn't know what Head Start was. I just knew that I would be going to school. I don't remember everything we did—50 years is a long time ago—but I do remember how much fun I had coloring, pasting, singing songs, counting, and, of course, learning my ABCs. During these "fun" activities, unbeknownst to us, we were learning valuable social, cognitive, and linguistic skills.

At the end of the eight weeks, there was to be a graduation program, in which I would recite "Jack Be Nimble" before jumping over an unlit candlestick. My sister Gwen, who was a teacher's aide, worked with me at home, sometimes past my bedtime, teaching me my lines. The recitation of that nursery rhyme may seem insignificant, but that moment represented the beginning of what would become my lifelong relationship with literature, which I now teach and translate.

After finishing Head Start, ABCs firmly learned, I was ready to conquer kindergarten. Because Daddy was always looking for a better job, we moved a lot throughout elementary school, sometimes twice during the school year. The anxiety of adjusting to a new school, to new classmates, and to a new curriculum was eased, however, by my love of learning. When I reached junior high, we finally settled in one place; and during my sophomore year in high school, my hard work and good grades caught the attention of a teacher, Mrs. Davis, who talked to me for the first time about going to college. For the next three years, she counseled me on where to apply, how to fill out the applications, and what to write in my admission essay.

During one of our counseling sessions, I mentioned I had attended Head Start. Through her, I learned that Head Start began as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty. Until then, I had never thought of us as having been poor. When you're a kid, and everyone else around you is poor, you have nothing to judge poverty by. As the youngest boy, I was used to wearing my brothers' hand-me-downs. Daddy and Mama worked hard, always putting us kids first, doing whatever was necessary so that we would at least graduate from high school, a privilege the Depression had denied them.

When I began college at 17, I was not only young for my class, I carried the additional challenge of being a first-generation college student. I was determined, however, to be the first member of my family to graduate from university. Through perseverance and determination, I graduated. Over 30 years and three degrees later, I am profoundly aware of the life-changing power of education.

As a college professor, I understand the challenges that low-income and minority students face. I also know that that success in college is determined in large part by the language and cognitive skills that are developed early in life, skills that low-income children are at a greater risk of not developing. By teaching those crucial skills, programs like Head Start level what is otherwise an uneven playing field, while at the same time providing students with the head start they need not just to compete but to win.

Just ask the boy who was nimble and quick and jumped over the candlestick in 1965 in that Head Start program in Ralston, OK.

Dr. George Henson is a senior lecturer of Spanish at the University of Texas at Dallas. In addition to teaching, Dr. Henson is a translator of four books and dozens of short stories and essays by some of Latin America's most prominent writers. His latest book, a translation of Sergio Pitol's The Art of Flight, was released in March. This story is crossposted from the ACF Family Room blog.