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…)

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