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Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, founder of Educational Achievement Services, Inc., began her keynote address at the Los Alamos Public Schools (LAPS) Back to School Staff Day by recounting a conversation she had with a woman from Los Alamos before she came.
“She said, ’I read about your background, but I’m not quite sure what the connection would be between you and Los Alamos. We’re a different community than the one you come from.’ And I said to this person – who meant well – ‘Well, I know one thing that brings us together. I am the American Dream.’ And all of us who educate children, that’s what we look at: the American Dreams that come through our doors and wait for us to realize that dream.”
Many would consider Castillo Kickbusch the perfect choice for the address. She holds a masters degree in cybernetics and became the highest ranking Hispanic woman in the U.S. Army’s Combat Support Field during two decades of decorated military service. She consults with clients ranging from Verizon to the U.S. Department of Education, has been profiled by numerous news agencies and has received many prestigious awards, including the 2002 National Association of Women Business Owners Entrepreneurial Spirit Award.
But undoubtedly the woman was referring to the fact that Castillo Kickbusch grew up in a barrio in Laredo, Texas, known as “the Devil’s Den,” one of 10 children whose parents had immigrated from Mexico. That background was the foundation of Castillo Kickbusch’s speech.
“I didn’t speak English, but I tried my best to learn the Pledge of Allegiance,” Castillo Kickbusch said. “Later on, I realized how important those words were to me: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. And then I realized public education stands on those words. We will not divide, we will not segregate and we cannot brand any child.”
‘Public education is very dear to my heart, because in my opinion, public education is the most physical form of democracy,” Castillo Kickbusch said. “I know that the day we turn our backs on public education we have stopped the American Dream. And we cannot do that for any reason. Public education is the reason that a girl like me, that was not supposed to succeed, is standing here before you.”
Castillo Kickbusch began her speech by acknowledging the teachers. “Every single one of you has lived a legacy and will leave a legacy. So give yourselves that pat on the back.”
But Castillo Kickbusch also reminded educators that they must always be aware of what their legacy is. “For children, we have one of two possibilities of what we can do with their lives. We can be their dreamkeeper, or we can be their gatekeeper,” Castillo Kickbusch said. “And that goes beyond technique, methodology or education. It really comes down to your personal will and what’s in your heart.” She asked them all to recall the impact of the teachers who had hurt their feelings and those that brought joy and hope.
Castillo Kickbusch stressed the assets she received from her family and her experiences. “The reason I think I ended up with a Masters in Cybernetics was because you have to use creativity and innovation, and I came from the most amazing family, that had to be creative and innovative and visionary. Today I train rising CEOs for the Fortune 10s. And they always say, ‘We are going to learn to think outside the box.’ I say, ‘Are you kidding? Back in my barrio, we didn’t even have a freaking box.’”
“But sometimes we look at children that come from outside of our backgrounds, and we don’t think they are added value. But if we listen to every child, we can actually be taught a lot of things about life. And that’s what I hope you will do as you see the children come from the many different paths. Ask them to tell you their story,” Castillo Kickbusch said.
Castillo Kickbusch’s school experiences included a first grade teacher who informed her that her name would be “Constance” (at six years old, she fought and won that battle). Her high school counselor and another teacher laughed at her when she said she was going to college.
“Who would give me the feeling that I would be the American Dream, if it wasn’t all of the people that surrounded me in school? What would they make room for? My culture? My experiences? Would they see that I was creative, innovative, that I could have code switching capabilities, that I was actually right and left brain dominant? That I was gifted?” Castillo Kickbusch said. “But because I was a child from a place that they couldn’t relate to, they just assumed that I couldn’t be. And yet others saw that in me, and they became my champions.”
Her main champion was a high school teacher she referred to as Mr. Cooper, “this white dude from South Boston. Harvard educated. Believed that all kids deserved a fair deal. Came to Laredo specifically looking for kids like me.” Cooper recognized Castillo Kickbusch’s capabilities and told her she was “brilliant.” He introduced her to the library – which opened such worlds of literacy for her the librarians had to force her to leave – and helped her achieve her goal of attending college and all that led to.
Castillo Kickbusch ended with, “Ladies and gentlemen, the children that come to you have that very simple wish in their heart, to stand before you one day, and tell you what I’m about to say, ‘thank you for making me the American Dream.’” Castillo Kickbusch obviously connected with the educators: she received a standing ovation.