Through Holt’s Gifts of Hope catalog, English professor and adoptee Tara Robbins Fee helps her students think critically about — and find solutions to — the problems affecting our world.
I am a professor of English, wife and mom, and Holt adoptee. I spent my childhood in rural South Jersey, reading Nancy Drew mysteries and Little House books and happily running around in the woods behind the house my parents built. Growing up, I rarely thought about the five months I spent in Korea before the day I arrived at JFK airport in New York City, the day depicted in our family photos, where my mother reaches out to hold me for the first time. That was the moment that I understood as my family origin story.
All through my childhood and teen years, my mother sewed the badges on my Girl Scout sash and packed my school lunches, and my father shuttled me around for History Day and debate team practices and babysitting. They sent me off to a good college and encouraged me as I embarked on a long graduate program. When I finished, I found a job that I love, met my husband, married, and had three children in five years.
As an adult, especially after I gave birth to my children and witnessed their first few months of life, I thought about the people who cared for me in those months between my birth and my departure from Korea. My birth mother had me for a couple of days — an estimate, based on my appearance when I was discovered on the street in Seoul — and then I benefited from the care of a foster family until I joined my parents in the U.S.
Now that I have tended my own newborns, the gift of those months in a caring home seems priceless, all the feeding and changing and bathing and soothing and singing that establishes an infant’s sense that the world is a good and safe place.
One gift of my adoption is that I know that all that I have is an act of providence, an accident of birth, a boon that came to me through the good works of others — not something that I earned myself.
I was born to a mother who placed me where I would be found, and adopted through an agency founded by a farmer drawn to war-torn Korea by a call on his heart to serve orphans. I was tended by a foster family and then escorted onto an airplane. All these actions led to the moment when I was placed in the arms of my mother, and as I see it, that chain of acts of grace should not end with me.
I teach at Washington & Jefferson College, a small liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania. The college’s mission is “to graduate people of uncommon integrity. . . who are prepared to contribute substantially to the world in which they live.”
In keeping with this mission, I ask my writing students to think about their assignments as steps toward the solutions to the problems affecting our world. Many of my students come to college already concerned about issues like child poverty, hunger and preventable illness, so the course introduces them to research tools that give them an expert view into what solutions work best.
For the last few years, I have been inviting my students to consider the work of Holt, which is obviously close to my heart. Their assignment asks them to make an argument to an imaginary foundation that is interested in funding some of Holt’s work. They read the Gifts of Hope catalog, choose a project, research the problem the project addresses, and write in support of it. Their essays and presentations never fail to move me.
This spring, one of my best students wrote an essay about how she wanted other families to have the opportunities that she had had because of her family’s small business: she wrote in favor of funding small business grants, arguing that they would lift not only the family but also the entire community.
Another student, who said he was from a single-parent home himself, remembered giving clothes to a friend who had less than he did, and he wrote in support of coats and blankets for orphans in Mongolia. Yet another wrote that vaccines should be prioritized because if children have a healthy start in life, everything else becomes possible for them.
Girls’ education is often a popular topic — students talk excitedly about research showing how a few more years of school can prevent child marriage and open up a whole world of autonomy and freedom for young women.
They also frequently argue for gifts of livestock, which provide families with perpetual sources of food and income. They show their classmates images of children with clubfeet and cleft lips that can be healed through life-changing surgeries. They talk about how the $7 that buys a pair of shoes for a barefoot child is the cost of a sandwich, half a pizza.
This project is always my favorite to teach because of the students’ growing recognition of the power they have to do good in the world. As an extra incentive, my husband and I fund the project supported by the best essay in each class because we want the students to see that even the modest gifts of the average person can have a significant impact.
And also because any one of those children — the daughter of the woman who receives a sewing machine and can support her family, the infant whose shivering is relieved by a warm blanket, the boy who can run and play because he was never stricken with a preventable illness — could have been one of our own beloved children, or could have been me.
Tara Robbins Fee | Holt Adoptee
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