The Mission

James O'Brien

Carolyn Cone is one of those people whose vocation, which she's described in dribs and drabs while sitting in bars over the years, can make you wither in her presence. She wasn't looking to have her story told or any other such nonsense. She's an elementary school teacher, and she's got the suffers-fools-well countenance that her occupation might suggest--battle-weary in the face of school budget cuts and plummeting literacy rates, but still up for the fight. And, at the moment, the only thing she really cares about is getting books for her kids.

Actually, at this moment, the only thing she really cares about is resting up for fall. Come September, she'll be teaching English to first- and second-graders at Franklin Elementary School on the edge of Frogtown in St. Paul, which has been one of the most popular schools for the Twin Cities Hmong community over the past three decades. And, what with the 5,000 new Hmong refugees moving from the Wat Tham Krabok compound in Thailand to the Twin Cities over the next six months, many of the new Minnesotans' first brush with English will come through Cone.

"I think one of the reasons I'm a good teacher is that I totally take a break," the 46-year-old Cone says by phone from Madeline Island. "For a good month and a half, I just come up here and don't think about it. I just try to take a break mentally. I speak Hmong all year, and I always think by coming up here and being away from it, it'll hurt my Hmong, but it always improves. It's because your brain can only absorb so much, and needs that down time.

"My boyfriend Jimmy and I have five acres up here. I've got a pickup camper, no electricity or anything--yet I go sailing, sleep in the woods, go to the beach, swim in the cold lake, do metal sculpture and paint watercolors. Lots of goofin' off. I'm trying not to think about [school] right now, because this year will be a challenge. If I was home, I'd be thinking about getting stuff together, buying materials, trying to get as much stuff set up for our room, because we'll be setting up all new classrooms."

Cone has spent her entire 18-year teaching career at Franklin. In that time, she has attended Hmong weddings, birthday parties, funerals, and has even shepherded a few of her students to her Madeline Island getaway--a degree of proximity by which she feels honored, given the historically closed Hmong culture. She has traveled to Laos twice, in order to get a sense of what it might feel like to travel 8,000 miles and get off a plane in a strange land. The only difference was that she could return home, while her students' parents and grandparents came to Minnesota knowing many would never see their homeland again.

"When I walked around Laos, it's as far away from Minnesota as you can get, but it felt familiar to me," she says. "I didn't feel uncomfortable. Some people I work with have family there still, and they feel that they can't go back. They're kind of afraid to go to Laos, because of the political situation there, and that's sad. That's the conflict."

Cone's affinity for traversing cultures could be chalked up to her roots. She's a descendent of Samuel and Gideon Pond, the missionaries who came to Minnesota in the 1800s and worked with the Dakota Indians to develop a Dakota alphabet. Centuries later, there is still a Cone-blooded teacher quietly preaching the importance of books and boundary busting.

"My family always had books--old antique books, books my grandmother gave me," she says. "My grandmother was a librarian. My mom has a book that my great-great-great-grandfather wrote when they became linguists, and she still has the book. It's all written in Dakota. I mean, this goes way back [in my family], this working with linguists and other cultures."

Because traditional Hmong culture is based on folk art and storytelling rather than the written word, Cone's challenge to get her students interested in reading and writing has been even greater than the one she faces with her American-born nonreading students.

"There just aren't a lot of books in Hmong," she says. "So I've been trying to make some books and I have a couple done, and a couple being published. My colleague and I have collected all [the Hmong-language books] we can find, but there just aren't a lot. And there's really not a lot of kids' books."

Which is why, even as she chills out on Madeline Island, she's been scouring the recycling center there for items so she can hit the ground running when she returns to St. Paul. It is also why she's asking you and me for "educational toys and simple books--not a lot of text, but with good pictures," any and all of which can be dropped off at English Language Learners Department, 360 Colborne St. in St. Paul (651.293.5411).

"Unfortunately, our students still learn the most from television, but I'm always trying to counter that by providing them with more literature," she says. "It's just another experience. They get so much media that, for me, teaching that appreciation for books, even the actual physical book, you know, 'Here's a book, here's what we do with it,' is important.

"You have to teach how to use them, and how to take care of them, and you really can instill that in them. You can. Some kids won't pick up on it, but some will really get into it. When they start bringing in books from home, then I know they're getting that love of books."


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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