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story.lead_photo.caption Former first lady Laura Bush speaks Thursday in Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus as part of the university’s student-sponsored Distinguished Lecture Series. - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE -- Former first lady Laura Bush still thinks about a 9-year-old boy, standing in his underwear in the doorway of a dilapidated house in Houston.

After earning a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Southern Methodist University in 1968, Bush wanted to teach at an inner-city school, so she got a job in Houston.

But she wasn't prepared for the poverty she saw there, Bush told a crowd Thursday night in Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Some of the students were hungry, said Bush.

"They would come to school in the morning with their bellies rumbling, and ravenously attack the free breakfast and lunch that we gave them," she said. "I wanted to help those children so badly, to reach into their lives and somehow make a difference. But it was an uphill fight."

She remembers one of those pupils in particular.

"Before I left that teaching job to go to graduate school, I decided to take a few of my favorite students to AstroWorld, the amusement park," said Bush.

"That day, we had several eager kids but when we came to the last house, the little boy who was supposed to go with us met us at the door in his underwear," she said. "Though we could hear his mother in the back of the house, she never came to the door to give us permission to take him. And so we had no choice but to leave. All I could do was hug him goodbye with an extra squeeze and leave him standing there to watch us all drive off to AstroWorld without him.

"Helping children like this little boy is one of the greatest challenges of our time."

Bush said she still wonders about that boy.

"He would be in his 50s now," she said. "What happened to him, I ask myself sometimes. Is he still alive? Did he manage to escape that dilapidated house in Houston with the mother who would not come to the door?

"Did he find another teacher who cared for him? Did he graduate from high school or even college and find a job where he was valued? Is he standing in an airport right now, a proud father, anxiously waiting for the plane that will bring his son or daughter home at last from Afghanistan?

"Or is he standing instead by the side of the road with a cardboard sign, or sitting by himself in a joyless, empty room, wondering how it all turned out this way?

"So my challenge to you tonight is the same challenge I have given to myself all these years: to never forget that boy. To never forget that one friendly smile, one reading lesson, one consoling touch, one check written or one busy hour given over to someone who needs you, these are the things that can make all the difference in the world."

As first lady from 2001 to 2009, Bush advanced literacy and education to support America's young people, according to a UA news release. Now, as chairman of the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, she continues her work on global health care innovations, education reform, empowering women in emerging democracies and supporting the men and women who have served in America's military.

Laura Bush has a master's degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin.

"I believe that every child deserves a quality education and a safe and healthy childhood," she told the crowd in Fayetteville. "I believe that literacy is an essential foundation for democracy. ... I know that books have the power, not just to move people as individuals, but to shape our journey as a nation.

"Look at Uncle Tom's Cabin. Abraham Lincoln once greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe by saying, 'So this is the little lady who made the big war.'

"Look at To Kill a Mockingbird ... an ideal in American decency and conduct. And whose author, Harper Lee, President Bush and I were honored to receive in the White House.

"Reading is not just a cause I selected as first lady," she said. "It's one of the guiding passions of my life."

Metro on 04/19/2019

Print Headline: Speaking on education at UA, ex-first lady recalls boy in door

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