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Derek Miller: Education opens the door when opportunity comes knocking

At 12,000 feet above sea level, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains sits a remote schoolhouse, in a remote village, in a remote part of Peru. The cinderblock buildings are surrounded by a tall concrete wall and form a courtyard for the obligatory campo de futbol. Best efforts have been made to create a lively location by painting the buildings in bright colors, but what really makes the place come alive are the school children running, singing, dancing and, most importantly, learning.

A delegation from the Salt Lake Chamber visited this school during a recent trip to Peru. We toured Lima on the coast of the Pacific Ocean and Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We climbed steps along the Inca Trail to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World at Machu Picchu. But the highlight was an unremarkable village, behind unremarkable walls, in unremarkable rooms, where the most remarkable children were taught by remarkable teachers.

As the Utah delegation interacted with the Peruvian children, we learned that they come from all over the surrounding area to attend school. Some children walk an hour each way, in all kinds of weather, often in the dark, from their homes high in the mountains.

A similar scene played out in the United States over 100 years ago during the transition from a mostly agrarian and industrial society. The turn of the 20th century saw a rise in public schools and public libraries across the country. Children who previously faced prospects of spending their youth working on farms or in factories began attending school with the same goal now held by their Peruvian counterparts — the chance for a better life.

This was the story of my grandfather who rode his horse 30 miles from his frontier home to the nearest town for school. His parents could have used and would have preferred his help on the farm. Attending school was his choice. No one made him go. No one would have cared if he didn’t. So later in life, when his daughters grew to school age, grandpa moved his family into town to provide an easier opportunity for education than he had. One of those daughters, my mother, cultivated a love of reading in the shadows of the Centennial Mountains, received an education that propelled that passion and grew up to become an English professor. In a mere two generations, the scholastic leap forward could not have been greater.

Education for these individuals, families and communities required sacrifice at every level. That remains true today. A recent Dan Jones and Associates poll shows that Utahns’ top priority, across the political spectrum, is improvement in public education. The kind of meaningful improvement desired by the public will only happen with similar personal and community commitment.

Back in Peru, the school children sang for us, told jokes and even recited poetry. When asked what they wanted to be when they finished school, the answers included a policeman, nurse, fireman — not too different from what you would hear from elementary school kids in Utah. After the singing and the poetry, we finished our visit with a game of futbol. The kids won. With the education they are receiving, they will be equipped to win the game of life.