In the early 1990s I worked for a foster care agency in New York City. It was my job as a “homefinder” to interview potential foster parents and assess whether they could provide a nurturing home for traumatized children. The work was an intimate education in human nature, from its most generous to its most sordid, but from a quarter-century’s distance one couple stands at the forefront of my memory.
Juan and Nidia lived in public housing in the Bronx. Having raised their own children to adulthood, they had decided to open their home to foster children. As superintendent for the housing complex, Juan had a steady job that kept him close by. Nidia was a motherly housewife. The two worked well together and had the support of family, friends, and their church in their new endeavor. All these things were common ingredients for a successful foster home.
What was uncommon about Juan and Nidia was their refinement. They had grown up in poverty in the Dominican Republic and neither had advanced past the sixth grade, yet they conducted themselves with quiet grace and perfect, unstudied courtesy. Even under stress they were considerate and gentle. I wondered at their poise. How had they learned it?
In reflecting on this simple couple over the years I have come to believe that their teacher was humility, once called the queen of the virtues. Through her tutorials Juan and Nidia had acquired, not polished etiquette, but natural elegance. Pride, the celebrated vice of the modern age, has dethroned this queen, but she is content to roam the highways and housing complexes and to enter wherever she is welcomed. She wears her crown still, and once invited indoors she waves her scepter and works a spritely alchemy. She makes the home a hidden mansion, its inhabitants a true aristocracy.