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Thu July 4, 2013
Superintendent Learns Lesson: Where You Are From Doesn't Dictate Where You Can Go
Every day I wake up with a spirit of excitement and anticipation of what the day may bring, in large part because of the incredible community that has become my adopted home, Miami.
It is the kind of community where dreams are made; where the sun, the sand and the vibrant mix of cultures come together to create an atmosphere that is like none other I have ever encountered. When I first arrived in the United States, it was via New York City. I had recently graduated from high school in Portugal and after working for a summer I had saved enough money to travel to the United States. I came from a poor family and America represented opportunity, the chance for a better life.
Like something out of a movie perhaps, I took odd jobs on construction sites, in restaurants and hotels, working my way across this great country, marveling at each locale. But it was not until I arrived in South Florida that I felt a truly special connection.
I was born in Portugal, and so ingrained in my heart is a natural love of the ocean. But it was more than that. Miami's people were warm and colorful. It was the early '80s, there was richness in the air, a mix of sights and sounds, of languages and music that as a young man I found electric. Miami had grabbed my soul, and I knew then that here is where I wanted to stay.
I settled in and worked hard going to school, learning English and becoming a part of the community. I found the people of South Florida only too willing to open their hearts, share their stories and offer a helping hand when needed.
One day while working in a restaurant, I had the good fortune to meet U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw. We chatted, and over time he learned that I was working my way through school. He offered me some advice that I have never forgotten: "One's future tomorrow is not limited by their condition today."
This congressman, who took the time to get to know someone who poured his coffee, really drove home to me that America was indeed a country where a person's destiny is limited only by their desire to achieve and willingness to work hard. Eventually, my path led me to Barry University, where I studied biological sciences, but began to discover a love of teaching as well. I have fond memories of Barry and of its caring faculty, including Sister Karen Frye.
Sister Frye was another example of the spirit of giving found throughout Miami. At one point, as many other working students do, I faced a shortage of funds. Sister Frye lent me $2,000, giving me the opportunity to complete my degree. When I graduated and began teaching at Miami Jackson Senior High, paying that money back was a priority, and with my last payment, one of my proudest moments.
Another of those moments came with my first interview at Miami Jackson, with then-Principal Freddie Woodson, a former Miami Dolphins player and seasoned school leader. I was very young at the time, and probably looked younger. I remember how he smiled when he asked me why he should take a chance on a kid like me, and how he would be able to tell me apart from his students.
At that moment, I assured him that I would wear a tie every day and give my students 110 percent. With that, he shook my hand and welcomed me to his staff.
To this day, I wear a tie daily, and I still give all my students 110 percent. The joy and acceptance that I found in Miami as a young adult, coupled with the values instilled in me as a boy by my mother and father, established a strong foundation for my career in education.
My days as a teacher, and later as a school and district administrator, gave me the opportunity to reach out to many children, to show compassion, provide support, and yes to educate. In much the same way the actions of my family, Rep. Shaw, Sister Frye, Mr. Woodson and others pushed me forward, I now have the opportunity to do the same for others.
I believe education is the great equalizer, the bedrock of our democracy and a truly noble profession. As Superintendent of Schools, I still believe that my role is to educate, to fight for those who may not have a voice, to give back to Miami all that it has given to me.
So Miami is my home now. I recently bought a house in Miami Shores. I have a family, many good friends, and my daughter has begun her journey as a young adult, entering college this year. I have much to be grateful for. Each segment of Miami's diverse community has made me feel welcome, from the cafés of Little Havana, to the churches of Little Haiti and the burgeoning communities of South Dade.
Over the years, I have grown, and I believe that Miami has as well. Our community accepts all and blends each distinct culture together into what must be one of the world's most interesting and exciting places to live and work. Miami is like nowhere else on earth; it is, and will remain, my home.
Alberto Carvalho is the superintendent of Miami-Dade Schools.
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