Classroom Musings; On Immigration & Families

A reunion between mother and daughter from opposite sides of a massive steel fence at the United States-Mexico border. Originally printed in the New York Times.

A reunion between mother and daughter from opposite sides of a massive steel fence at the United States-Mexico border. Originally printed in the New York Times.


In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.  -Albert Einstein


               I have to admit, at the very beginning, she perturbed me. She would linger in the classroom for long periods of time, closely watching over her granddaughter Naya, and assisting her every maneuver, all the while quietly observing the actions of other parents, students, my aide, and myself. I welcome family volunteers graciously. For the teacher who is willing to maintain an open door policy (within closely monitored district requirements, of course) there are countless rewards once a solid relationship is built with your helpers in waiting. Anyone who has ever been in charge of multiple children at any given time, can tell you that crowd control is easily undermined by extraneous factors such as tiredness, hunger, bright colors on the wall, lint on the carpet…you catch my drift. In addition to maintaining some semblance of classroom management, teachers are also expected to execute tasks such as the facilitation of learning and stimulation of young minds. No sweat, right? Especially when you have a supporting cast of volunteers who are eager to help prepare crafts, staple copies, and set up small group activities. My volunteers are a God-send. No joke. And so it was that I reluctantly decided to accept Naya’s grandmother into the classroom with open arms. Well, not quite.

            You see, I’m ashamed to say it, but It took some time for me to warm to her. And, to be fair, I think it’s accurate to say it took a while for me to grown on her as well. I was irked by her over-bearing nature, and she was skeptical of me, the young-ish teacher with skinny jeans & a tendency to break out in spontaneous song. She would indirectly question my reasoning behind taking the children out to recess on cold winter days. Or my practice of encouraging the children to do things independently such as opening their own milk cartons, or working through peer conflict before I swooped in and rescued the situation. She was a classic helicopter grandparent. Protective to the point of stifling. But as months went on, she eased up a bit. And Naya became more confident and outgoing as a result. She was also extremely helpful in the classroom;  whether it was sweeping of floors, wiping mouths, or serving lunch plates…she was quick to fill in any void she saw. As a result, the classroom schedule and transitions were as smooth as could be. Around the second half of the school year, she began to smile, and talk, and even joke. And I started to genuinely enjoy her presence.

             Then, April came, and suddenly Naya stopped coming to school. After waiting a few days to hear from her family regarding her absence, I called home. Naya’s grandmother picked up. There had been a family tragedy. A car accident, and her grandson had died, a day before his 20th birthday. Needless to say, she was devastated. When they returned to school several weeks later, Naya requested to draw a sidewalk chalk picture for her deceased cousin so that he could look upon it from his new home in Heaven. So we did. My aide and I also listened as grandmother broke down and told us the details of the accident. And about her daughter’s inconsolable grief. And how precious and short life is. We cried with her. As mothers. But mostly, as  friends.

            Last week, as we prepared to close the classroom for the summer, Naya’s grandmother and I stood on the school yard watching the children work themselves into a feverous state of excitement over the impending summer break. I glanced over in her direction, and for a second, realized how far we had come since September. And out of nowhere, she began a story…”You know, I left my daughter in El Salvador when she was about Naya’s age. Not just her, my other daughters also. My youngest was 2 at the time. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do…” And for the next half hour, she recounted how she had left her improvised country to come to the States in search of a better life for her children. She came alone. With nothing but the clothes on her back, and a small picture of her daughters that she carries with her to this day. She found under-the-table work as a house cleaner, and sent nearly all of her earnings back home to her daughters who were in the care of her mother. She did this for 7 years, until finally, with the help of her American born husband, she was able to bring her children to the U.S. for good.

              Suddenly, all the times she spent hovering around Naya made sense. The way she coaxed her to finish all her food, the manner in which she fussed over her clothes, her hair, her school work. The way that she worried for every single cough, sneeze, and yawn. It was all justified.

            Justice. It’s a word I think of often. I contemplate how it applies to my students, as they work their way through a school system that overemphasizes test results rather than learning processes. I ponder the way it manifests in daily interactions between school staff and parents who are visibly uncomfortable on the school campus; be it because their English is limited, or they are unsure of their role in a formal educational setting, or perhaps because their own experiences in school were negative enough to prompt them to shy away from the environment as a whole. But I can tell you what Justice is not. Justice is not represented in a worldwide system that ruthlessly places profits before the needs and rights of a human being—a system that looks the other way when national policies such as NAFTA outright cripple a country and it’s ability to support it’s own, then responds with laws that criminalize people who migrate for the sake of their survival and that of their families. Justice is not present in a political environment that labels people “illegal.” Justice is not represented in a classroom where a teacher refuses to call a child by their birth name, on the basis that ‘Jorge” in English is ‘George.’ Justice means little to a mother who has nothing but a faded snapshot of her children to keep her going, day after day, night after night, as she toils away in a foreign country that never welcomed her in the first place.

               I do not like to make sweeping generalizations. But I am going to make one now. I have been teaching in one of the most diverse cities in the nation for the past 12 years, in both the public and private sectors. I’ve taught children who were born into affluence, and those who live in extreme poverty. And this I can say with certainty: 9 times out of 10, the people who have consistently been willing to do the grunt work (the wiping of noses, mopping of floors, scrubbing down the grime, and sanitizing of rugs after vomit incidents) are immigrants. Whether its the grandfather who immigrated from a war-torn Vietnam and now helps tend to my classroom garden, or the Iranian born mother who lovingly zippers the jacket of each and every student as I usher them out the door to recess, or the Cantonese-speaking auntie who kneels (without flinching) on the dusty cement to tie the shoe of an active student—these people deserve justice. But there’s more. They also deserve our utmost respect. 

               The battle over immigration rights continues in this country, as it always has, and perhaps always will. In the strategy room, there are politicians and pundits and activists each with their own agendas. All of them motivated by a different cause. And on the front-lines, there are men and women like Naya’s grandmother. Naya’s grandma, who joins her granddaughter in class everyday because she was not there to do it for her own daughters. Like Hanisa’s grandfather who gently held the hands of an angry student and told him, in broken English, how hate is the cause of all problems, but the solution to none. Like my grandmother, Guadalupe, who worked the cotton fields of Texas while bearing the weight of a small child on her back. Laws will be written, policies changed, and slogans coined. But all that aside, the collateral damage of the war on immigration remains the family. And to me, that is a high price to pay.

(For my Father, Jose. Happy Father’s Day. And for my Nana Lupe, for going through hell and back to bring him here…)

Sticks & Stones: Why I Write

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…”
-Joan Didion

Whoever came up with the saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” must have been out of touch. Sometimes words do hurt.

Not only that, they can infuriate, resonate, and bring us to tears. There are a few people in my life who have the ability to literally stun me  with a single phrase, and believe me, if given a choice, I’d rather those select few come at me with a stick or rock than subject me to one of their signature tongue lashings.

Thankfully, over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at brushing things off. But the other day, when my ex reproached me with, “Get a life…” I have to admit, it irked me.

Because I knew with near certainty what he was referring to.

These days, the interactions between he & I are mostly decent, save for the occasional spat over schedule changes or share of costs in regards to the kids. Even those tiffs have lessened in their severity as time heals the wounds of our split.

I can’t even remember what brought on this particular comment, and 9 times out of 10 I’m able to tune out his verbal jabs without much thought.

But this one….this one was personal.

Without delving into too much detail over past arguments and the surrounding issues, I’ll just say that, during our separation, it came to light that he looked down on my time spent social networking, blogging, book clubbing, etc.

From what I could decipher, he viewed these activities as  pseudo-networking, grabs for attention, and a general waste of time. Despite the fact that they were instrumental in my connection with advocates across the nation who I’ve had the honor of doing impactful work to this day.

Granted, I became social network savvy during late night hours of the night while I was home with sleeping children and finishing my grad school thesis. I used these networks as an outlet for my creative writing thirst that I’d pushed aside while prioritizing research papers, lesson plans, and the day-to-day demands of mothering multiple young children.

Often, I left social functions early so that I could put the kids to bed, leaving him to enjoy the remaining hours of the gathering without young children in tow. Other instances, it was during the phases where he’d attend  things like Friday night (or more accurately, early Saturday morning) poker tournaments during which I usually camped out on the couch with laptop, textbooks, and a snoring child or two.

In any case, my thirst for writing was quenched in the solitude of such times, when my brain was burnt out on college course work, but stimulated enough to engage in other activities.

I began with MySpace debates, graduated to Facebook notes & statuses, threw in the occasional forum discussion, and eventually started blogging.

Writing is not a new thing for me. In high school, I was known to skip class and steal away to a nearby park, where I’d post up against a shade tree and furiously write away in my spiral-bound notebook.

The difference between my writing then and now is that now, I share.

Some people might say I OVER share. But the way I disperse my personal information (including  pictures and random thoughts) is representative of the way I share in general.

Much like my parents & grandparents before me, I’m a giver. I don’t take much issue with sharing my time, information, assistance, or possessions.

When I consider the most profound memories of my life, nearly all of them came during a moment of story-telling, unexpected disclosure, or midnight ramblings that took on a life of their own in the glow of a melancholy moon.

The single most powerful memory I have of my grandfather is the time he took me aside during a family wedding and told me of his rebellious youth, and the ways in which he finally centered himself again. At the time, I was a reckless, defiant little 14-year-old mess. But up until then, I had never heard the stories pain and suffering my grandfather endured growing up, and the way he expressed that in his adolescence. I was floored. And forever moved.

And to this day I can still feel his hands grasping mine across the brightly colored polyester table cloth as he pleaded with me to consider what effect my actions were having on my family, and the effect they would have on my life in general.

Stories. Memories. Spoken & written word. They enrapture me. I’m intoxicated by the emotion that creeps into a parents voice as they describe the moment they first laid eyes on their newborn baby. I’m humbled by the courage it takes for the families of my students to disclose their personal history, or current conflicts in efforts to come to terms with a complicated home situation.

It delights me when some random youngster at the park sits on the bench next to me & launches into an impromptu monologue, stringing together events and phrases in no particular sequence. (Given that this kind of thing happens to me pretty frequently, I’m convinced I must have TEACHER written all over me, even when I’m not in work mode).

We learn so much from each other through the passing on of stories…history, vulnerabilities, differences, and most importantly- similarities. Erin Morgenstern said it beautifully when she stated: “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

There are stories I have read, or heard, or perhaps told myself, that have given me the strength to push through stagnant periods in my life during which no other lifelines were present save for the hope breathed into me with tales of resilience and growth. Books whose well worn pages are nearly as familiar to me as the faces of my own children. And almost as treasured.

Yes, words can hurt. They also heal, inspire, and invigorate. And this is why I write. To relieve myself of day-to-day burdens. To laugh at my circumstances and take things less seriously. To reflect, and renew. To relate. To forgive.

Because each and every time I read a comical blog, listen to a touching recount of a random memory, or come across an emotionally raw article or broadcast, I’m inspired to pick up my pen and add a line or two to this collection of works that is life.