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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Before Trump handed her a trophy, she handed him a message

President Donald Trump and Mandy Manning, a teacher at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash., stand after the president presented her with the National Teacher of the Year award during the the National Teacher of the Year reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
President Donald Trump and Mandy Manning, a teacher at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash., stand after the president presented her with the National Teacher of the Year award during the the National Teacher of the Year reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Mandy Manning showed up at the White House with a batch of letters for the president.

One of her students from Uganda had written a poem about her experience. Another told the president how badly he wants to attend college. A Rwandan immigrant wrote of the connection between “negative messages” about immigrants that come from the corridors of power and the ones she sometimes hears in the corridors of high school.

On Wednesday, Manning gave the letters to President Trump, right before he honored her as the National Teacher of the Year. Manning instructs refugee and immigrant students from all over the world at Ferris High School in the Newcomers Center – she also invited Trump to pay a visit to her “amazing and beautiful” students.

“I was able to personally hand my students’ letters to the president,” said Manning in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., after the ceremony. “He accepted them positively and his aide took them.”

Manning said Trump told his aide, “Please make sure they are on my desk. I want to be able to read them.”

Manning was honored Wednesday along with the finalists and state teachers of the year. She and other honorees have met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, participated in a panel discussion with Cabinet officials on education, and will visit the vice presidential residence Thursday. But the highlight of the week was the White House ceremony, where Manning gave some prepared remarks before being presented with a crystal apple trophy by the president.

“Each of you dedicated your lives to our nation’s single most important resource: our children,” the president said.

He noted that Manning had begun her career teaching in the Peace Corps, and mentioned she now teaches at Ferris High in Spokane. (Yes, he rhymed it with pain.)

“Outstanding job by Mandy – by everybody, but outstanding job by Mandy,” he said.

Trump didn’t specifically mention Manning’s work with immigrant and refugee children, about which she has spoken frequently in interviews leading up to the ceremony.

The issue had the makings of an elephant in the room – perhaps a baby elephant – because of Trump’s hard-line positions and statements about immigrants and refugees. Many news stories in advance of the ceremony noted this potential tension, and many noted after the ceremony that Trump had avoided mentioning refugees or the Ferris Newcomer Center.

The Washington Post reported that in his prepared remarks on the teleprompter, Trump used all capitals only on the word “citizens” when he said was hailing teachers as the ones who prepare the “next generation of citizens.”

Manning said she wished the president had mentioned the Newcomer Center specifically, but feels that her message – and her students’ – is getting a lot of attention, regardless.

“Teaching immigrant and refugee students is a very, very important aspect of what I do as an educator, so I did wish he had mentioned that,” she said. “But I was able to give remarks that highlighted that (subject), and there are several other people throughout the nation who are definitely highlighting that.”

The awards portion of the ceremony was streamed live online. Manning’s remarks were not streamed, but a written copy of the speech shows that she spoke extensively about her students – the American success stories of Safa from Sudan, Hussein from Iraq, Jeff from Haiti, and Neroz and Mohamad from Syria.

“I am here for refugee and immigrant students, for the kids in the gay-straight alliance, and for all the girls I’ve coached over the years, to send them the message that they are wanted, they are loved, they are enough, and they matter,” Manning said. “Go out today, seek an experience you have never had before. Get uncomfortable. Challenge your own perceptions to find clarity. Be fearless, be kind, meet someone new.”

Manning is a 42-year-old graduate of Eastern Washington University who has been teaching in Spokane for a decade. She served in the Peace Corps before that, and has also taught in Armenia, Japan, Texas and New York City. In her classes at Ferris she has taught students from all over the world and she is often their first teacher in America.

When she was announced as the national winner on “CBS Morning News” in April – as “Mandy Manning, with the very cool name and the very cool haircut” – she said, “I want to encourage people to have experiences outside their understanding and I want educators to provide students with that opportunity, because we fear what we don’t understand.”

She sounded similar themes in interview after interview leading up to Wednesday’s ceremony: the importance of empathy and understanding, and the dangers of demonization.

“These kids are future citizens,” she said in an interview with the news site Crosscut. “Most of my students are refugees, which means they are on a pathway to citizenship. They have drive and ambition and dreams. The majority of my students graduate from high school. They go on to postsecondary education, and they are productive members of our community. We tend to have this divisive us versus them when really we’re all together. We’re all important. Our nation was started with immigrants, refugees really. That’s the real heart of the United States.”

For now, Manning is wrapping up her visit, wading through the congratulations and interviews, and getting ready to keep doing what she did Wednesday with the president of the United States: Sharing stories about her students.

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