07/18/2013 01:14 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Wisdom From the Periphery: Zoila's Gift

If you were fortunate enough to grow up in a middle-class family, education was probably taken for granted. It wasn't a question of whether you would go to college, but where. Which school offered the best financial aid, the best professors in your field, the best networking opportunities?

In middle-class homes, education is kind of like a car: You decide where you want to go in life, and then you choose the education that will help you get there, based on economy, comfort level, aspiration, and so forth.

In my case, I chose Georgetown University, because my parents had always encouraged me to make a difference in the world, and Georgetown shared those values. I didn't exactly take my opportunities for granted, but I couldn't fully appreciate them, either, because I had never known anything else.

It wasn't until halfway through school that I began to understand just how blessed I really was. During a study abroad program in Quito, Ecuador, I met a woman named Zoila who showed me that an education, for so many people in the world, is not a luxury like a car. Instead, it's something far more elemental -- a bus ticket, perhaps, to a whole new world.

While attending university in Quito, I had the privilege of living and volunteering at the Centro De Muchacho Trabajador: Un Familia de Familias (CMT). Fr. John Halligan, SJ, the founder of CMT, had discovered years earlier that the young boys shining shoes on the streets of Quito were often the primary breadwinners for their families, many of whom had moved into the city from the countryside in search of jobs. Based on that understanding, Fr. Halligan spent decades building a world-class organization offering Quito's poor an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty through education, vocational training, micro-lending, and health services.

As you might imagine, hundreds of rambunctious street kids can take their toll on even the best-run facility, and that's where Zoila came in. She was a local woman who arrived by bus every day for her housekeeping job at the Center. She was dedicated, hard working -- and just as illiterate as the boys she looked after. I needed to improve my rudimentary Spanish, and she needed to learn to read, so we worked out a tutoring arrangement that would benefit both of us.

Zoila was an eager learner. No matter how often I was delayed returning from school by bus strikes or other transit problems, she would be waiting for me with her books and her smile. She would patiently expand my Spanish vocabulary and correct my pronunciation, while I taught her to make sense out of scribbles on a page.

At the end of eight months, Zoila was functionally literate, and I had new fluency in the kind of street Spanish that helped me build important relationships with the families at CMT. My time in Quito was drawing to a close, and I thanked her for all that she'd taught me. She looked at me somewhat amazed as she thanked me in return, and then taught me one additional lesson that has stayed with me for more than 25 years.

Zoila might never read the classics of Spanish literature, but a little bit of education had opened up a whole new world to her, she explained. In Quito, where so many people can't read, bus lines are color-coded to help illiterate workers get to their jobs. For years, commuting back and forth to CMT on the same bus line, Zoila had looked at all those other buses and silently wondered where they were going. Each bus was marked on the front with its final destination, but the letters meant nothing to her. She knew how to get to her job and how to get home, but other than that, her world was limited to the distance she could walk.

"I felt like a little animal," she told me, trying to explain how a bit of education had changed her life. "Now I feel like a human being." The diminutive that she used in Spanish, "animalito," struck me in a powerful way. I pictured a hamster in a plastic cage, bumping up against invisible walls no matter where it turned.

Now that she could read, Zoila said the city had opened up to her. She rode the buses to explore and experience, not just to get to work. The invisible walls were gone, along with the feeling of being trapped. She was free. She had choices. She felt more fully human.

I've thought of Zoila many times over the years, because she was the one who truly taught me about the transformative power of education. In fact, I thought of her just the other day, when my friends at the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report showing that 23 percent of children in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2011.

Faced with such statistics, many people are tempted to shrug their shoulders and mumble something about getting a job. But imagine someone like Zoila trying to do just that: How would you go about getting a job if you couldn't fill out an application, read the "Help Wanted" ads, or even find the right bus to get to your interview?

Public schools are one of this nation's most important social institutions for breaking the cycle of poverty, and that's why we have to make sure that they work for everyone. Immigrants, children of color, children of the working poor -- if our schools fail those students, then they have failed society by perpetuating the very cycle they were intended to break.